U.S. buildup in Iraq done

Gates visits Baghdad during lull

5 soldiers die

fighter jet crashes

June 16, 2007|By Tina Susman | Tina Susman,Los Angeles Times

BAGHDAD -- All of the U.S. troops deployed as part of President Bush's increase strategy are now in Iraq, a military spokesman said yesterday, but the deaths of five soldiers and the crash of an Air Force fighter jet underscored the perils they face trying to quell Iraq's violence.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates arrived in Baghdad late yesterday for an unannounced visit. Gates is the latest in a string of high-ranking U.S. military and political officials to come to Iraq for meetings with Iraqi leaders, who are being pressed to speed up political reforms that might ease the insurgency.

Gates arrived to a capital strangely hushed, the result of a curfew imposed after the bombing of a revered Shiite mosque on Wednesday.

The effects of the curfew were most evident in the nightly police tally of murder victims found on Baghdad's streets. Only one body bearing the hallmarks of a death squad killing was found, compared with the 25 or more picked up most days.

Outside the southern city of Basra, a Sunni mosque was attacked in what was believed to be an act avenging the bombing of the Shiite shrine. Local residents said the Sunni site was destroyed by men who planted bombs inside. A police spokesman said they gained entry by posing as television cameramen, the Associated Press reported.

For the most part, though, Iraqis appeared to be heeding calls from religious and political leaders to refrain from the kind of sectarian bloodshed that followed the bombing in February 2006 of the Golden Mosque, the same shrine attacked this week.

During Friday prayer services, Shiite and Sunni clerics called for unity among Muslims. Some used their services to step up rhetoric against the U.S. occupation, blamed by many Iraqis for the sectarian tensions.

"We need to be united and in solidarity in the face of the tyrants and aggressors. We should continue our demand for the withdrawal of the occupation forces and kick out their followers," said Salman Fureiji, leading prayers in the Shiite stronghold of Sadr City.

A sheik at a Sunni mosque, Ibrahim Nima, had a similar message. "It is the occupation forces which are responsible for what has happened so far and what is happening now: killings, lootings and kidnapping the innocent people," he said.

Gates was the third U.S. official to visit Iraq in a week, and he was expected to deliver the same message: that Washington wants Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government to pass some of the legislation seen as essential to promoting national reconciliation. That would include a law to share oil wealth and another to permit members of the ex-Baathist Party regime to return to jobs in government and the military.

Gates' arrival coincided with the military's announcement of five more U.S. troop deaths in Iraq, increasing to 3,519 the number killed since the war began in March 2003.

The tally comes from www.icasualties.org, which tracks military and civilian casualties in the war.

The latest U.S. combat deaths occurred Thursday, north of Baghdad. Three soldiers died outside Kirkuk when an explosion occurred near their vehicle. Another was killed in Diyala province when a patrol came under small-arms fire. A non-combat death occurred Wednesday, according to a military statement that gave no details.

The Air Force said the F-16 crashed early yesterday while flying a "close-air support mission" from its base about 50 miles north of Baghdad and carried one crew member.

Army Lt. Col. Christopher Garver, a military spokesman, said the last of the extra 28,500 troops deployed to Iraq as part of Bush's security plan had arrived in recent days.

Garver said, however, that the final brigade would take 30 to 60 days to "get integrated into the area in which they are operating."

Tina Susman writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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