An ambitious military sweep appears to be dramatically reducing Baghdad’s homicide rate, U.S. and Iraqi officials said Sunday -- even as violence nationwide killed at least 80 people, including six U.S. soldiers in and around the capital.
Last month, the Baghdad morgue received more than 1,800 bodies, a record high. This month, the morgue is on track to receive less than a quarter of that.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki seized on the drop in slayings during a CNN interview.
“The violence is not increasing.... No, we’re not in a civil war,” Maliki said. “In Iraq, we’ll never be in civil war. What you see is an atmosphere of reconciliation.”
Although the smaller monthly tally offers encouragement to U.S. and Iraqi officials, it remains a triple-digit reminder that sectarian violence and insurgent activity continue to roil the country.
“It is not possible to create a democracy at the barrel of a gun.... We cannot even work freely as politicians,” said Saleh Mutlak, a Sunni Arab member of parliament. “It is not possible for us to even hold meetings. We cannot travel between one province and another.”
U.S. Army Maj. Gen. James D. Thurman, commander of military forces in Baghdad, attributed the capital’s declining violence to a sweep involving 8,000 U.S. soldiers and 3,000 Iraqi troops aimed at stopping sectarian violence.
The troops, many redeployed from hot spots around Iraq, have patrolled the capital, searched houses and made arrests since Aug. 7. Similar sweeps in Baghdad and elsewhere since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 have reduced violence. But the bloodshed would increase when U.S. forces moved on.
Though the U.S. military has not issued a timetable for ending the sweep, officials say that patrolling Baghdad indefinitely would create dependency among Iraq’s nascent security forces and tax U.S. resources and manpower.
The U.S. military, with 138,000 troops, is stretched thin in Iraq; many units are on their third deployments. Last week, the Pentagon announced an involuntary recall of as many as 2,500 Marines reservists. The Army has issued recall orders to 10,000 soldiers.
U.S. military leaders say they hope Iraqi police units, paired with American training teams, will be able to maintain security once the troops leave.
Many Baghdad residents, however, think that Iraq’s notoriously corrupt and sectarian police forces are part of the problem. U.S. and Iraqi officials acknowledge that Shiite Muslim militiamen, many of whom have infiltrated the police, are responsible for most of Baghdad’s slayings, but there is still no plan to disarm paramilitary groups.
U.S. and Iraqi officials describe the Baghdad security plan as a last-ditch effort to stave off civil war and to shore up Maliki’s government, which has struggled to contain sectarian violence and deliver essentials such as electricity and gasoline.
Baghdad morgue statistician Muayed Matrood said Sunday that “the number of unidentified, identified bodies and those killed randomly in crossfire received by the morgue from Aug. 1 to Aug. 15 were between 240 and 250 bodies.” Between the 15th and Sunday, the morgue received 80 to 85 bodies, Matrood said.
The morgue does not count victims of explosions, whose remains often are mutilated. But Iraqi police Capt. Mohammed Hanoon said bomb attacks were down by one-third during the first two weeks of August.
But the news of progress in Baghdad was damped by the flurry of weekend violence throughout Iraq.
Of the 80 deaths reported Sunday, 25 were in Baghdad.
Bombers targeted two media centers in the capital. Nine people were killed when a bomb planted on a commuter bus exploded near the pedestrian entrance of the Palestine Hotel, which houses several media organizations.
Two people died when a bomb exploded in the parking lot of the headquarters of Al Sabah, one of Iraq’s largest daily newspapers.
“This is the second attack of its kind against us so far,” Falah Mishal, an editor at the paper, told the Iraqiya television station. “This is the price that is being paid to the workers at Al Sabah due to their steadfastness and their patriotism.”
Morgue workers at Yarmouk Hospital in Baghdad said they received at least a dozen bodies Sunday, among them torture victims, bystanders hit by gunfire, and a child killed by a mortar round.
Near Khalis, a village 15 miles north of Baghdad, gunmen killed 22 people at a cafe, an Iraqi army official said. The assailants also raided a judge’s home, killing his brother. Also in Khalis, a bomb detonated near a market, killing six people.
In nearby Baqubah, two truck drivers were slain in drive-by shootings and gunmen killed an Iraqi army colonel. In addition, two brothers and their cousin were shot to death by unknown attackers. And Iraqi police found two bodies six miles north of Baqubah.
In the northern oil hub of Kirkuk, a car bomber smashed into the home of an Iraqi police colonel, killing nine people. Another car bomb killed one person at the office of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani’s political party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. It was the second time this month that bombers targeted the party’s office.
The bombings are “aimed at igniting sectarian divisions between Kirkuk’s residents, especially between Arabs and Kurds,” said Mohammed Khalel Nsayef, an Arab politician in Kirkuk, a majority Kurdish city with significant Arab and Turkmen populations.
In Duluiya, 50 miles north of Baghdad, three bodyguards for parliament member Abed Jibouri were gunned down.
In the southern city of Basra, Iraqi police officers said gunmen killed a policeman and his sister. Basra authorities also arrested 18 people accused of kidnapping and selling women to foreigners.
U.S. military officials announced the deaths of six American soldiers. Two died in Baghdad, one by small-arms fire and one by a roadside bomb, officials said.
Four more troops died in a roadside bombing north of Baghdad. No location was given, but eyewitnesses in Tarmiya, 35 miles north of the capital, said that a bomb destroyed an American armored vehicle and that no one survived.
Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih said in an interview that the leading Shiite coalition was planning to reshuffle the Cabinet three months after the formation of the unity government.
“This is aimed at improving the performance of the government,” said Salih, who declined to identify which ministries would be affected.
Two senior U.S. military leaders in Iraq recently expressed concern that Interior Minister Jawad Bolani, a former engineer and Iraqi army officer with no police experience, had yet to rein in Shiite militias in the police forces. The paramilitary groups are accused of detaining and killing Sunni Arabs.
A conference of Sunni Arab tribal leaders from throughout Iraq ended Sunday with a declaration pledging support for Maliki, condemning killings and kidnappings of Iraqis, and calling for increased participation in Iraq’s political process.
The tribesmen also denounced “irresponsible actions by the multinational forces that are hurting innocent people.”
“What has been reflected in this conference is that there aren’t any real differences that should separate Iraqis from each other,” the declaration said.