American and Iraqi troops launched a large-scale security sweep in Baghdad this morning after a surprise 5 1/2 -hour visit to the Iraqi capital by President Bush on Tuesday.
Police and troops began installing checkpoints throughout the city and enforcing new security measures, including a weapons ban, as part of a crackdown intended to stem the blood bath in the capital.
Only Iraqi security forces and those with a license will be allowed to carry weapons on the street, although Iraqis will still be allowed to own one automatic weapon for their protection as long as it is kept at home, Maj. Gen. Abed Jassem of Iraq’s Defense Ministry said at a news conference Tuesday.
The curfew will run from 8:30 p.m. to 6 a.m. for an indefinite period. A midday vehicle ban will be imposed from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Fridays, when many people go to prayers.
The visit by Bush, who met with Iraqi government leaders and American troops in the tightly secured Green Zone, came at what U.S. and Iraqi officials hope is a crucial time.
In recent days, a new democratically elected government has taken shape, and the U.S. military killed Abu Musab Zarqawi, leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq.
But Baghdad is more violent than at any time since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein. At least 2,155 people died violently in the capital in May, government documents show. The new security plan is designed to stem the escalating shootings, bombings and kidnappings.
The plan was one of the topics discussed when Bush met with Prime Minister Nouri Maliki and his Cabinet at one of Hussein’s ornate former palaces, which now serves as part of the U.S. Embassy.
“I’ve come not only to look you in the eye,” Bush told Maliki, “I’ve also come to tell you that when America gives its word, it will keep its word. It’s in our interest that Iraq succeeds.”
“We have to defeat all the terrorists,” Maliki said after the meeting. “God willing, all the suffering will be over and all the soldiers will return to their countries.”
En route back to the U.S., Bush told reporters aboard Air Force One that Iraqi officials had expressed “concern about our commitment and keeping our troops there.”
“There’s a worry, almost to a person, that we will leave before they are capable of defending themselves,” he said. “I assured them they didn’t need to worry. I also made it clear that we want to work with their government on a way forward on all fronts.”
On Tuesday afternoon, accompanied by his national security advisor, Stephen Hadley, and Joshua Bolten, his chief of staff, Bush touched down at Baghdad’s airport after an 11-hour overnight flight from Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington. He then flew by helicopter to the Green Zone.
The trip offered Bush an opportunity to turn attention in the United States to events that administration officials hailed as signs of progress in Iraq: the first steps of a democratically elected government made up of representatives of the country’s three main ethnic and sectarian groups.
He clearly relished the chance to see the new government in person, and his senior aides had for some time been preparing to launch the trip as soon as Maliki completed his Cabinet.
Beyond the political considerations, the visit allowed Bush to take his measure of Maliki in person.
The president has made it clear that he prefers to deal directly with other leaders, experiencing the give-and-take of unscripted conversation that he says allows him to get to know people.
The visit, Bush’s first to Iraq since Thanksgiving 2003, came as at least 37 people were killed in violence in Baghdad and to the west and north of the capital. Iraqi security forces arrested 56 suspected insurgents and killed five others during a 24-hour period ending Tuesday, the Defense Ministry said.
Before Bush’s arrival, the ministry’s Jassem outlined the security plan for Baghdad and surrounding areas. A plan is also being developed for the neighboring province of Diyala, north of Baghdad, where Zarqawi was found and killed, he said.
Concentrating first on “hot spots,” security forces will conduct targeted raids, Jassem said.
“If you roam streets after curfew with weapons in your hands, you will be considered a terrorist by the security forces,” he said.
All of Iraq’s ministries have been involved in preparing the plan, he said, and a key goal is the restoration of confidence in the country’s security forces.
Many Iraqis, particularly Sunni Arabs, allege that Shiite militias have infiltrated the security forces and are carrying out torture and extrajudicial killings.
The nature of the violence in Baghdad has changed. Shiites had been the predominant victims of bombings and other attacks. This year, Sunnis have disproportionately been the victims.
Without being specific, Jassem said that “part of the plan is to [absorb] the militias within the security forces.”
“The new government is serious about reestablishing the people’s trust, not only in the army but also in the Ministry of Interior forces,” he said.
Maj. Gen. Jawad Dayni, an Iraqi army commander in western Baghdad, said troops would step up patrols and increase the number of checkpoints. “We will arrest any civilian who carries a weapon,” he said, adding that the ban applies to militia members as well as neighborhood watch groups.
In an interview this week, U.S. Army Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV said violence between Sunnis and Shiites had eclipsed the insurgency as the biggest problem in the capital.
“And that’s what concerns me,” he said, adding that sectarian violence is harder to quell. “If it’s an insurgency, you can go after the insurgents.”
Elsewhere in Iraq on Tuesday, fighting intensified in and around Ramadi as rebels launched mortar rounds and attacked Iraqi military positions. The U.S. military believes many fighters loyal to Zarqawi’s group, Al Qaeda in Iraq, are in the vast desert west of Baghdad.
Four Iraqi soldiers were killed and three were injured in a lengthy gunfight with 15 insurgents who burned several Iraqi army vehicles before fleeing, authorities said.
Residents said streets were deserted as U.S. snipers hid on rooftops throughout the city.
U.S.-led troops raided an elementary school north of Ramadi on Monday. The military said rebels were using the classrooms to train suicide bombers and teach bomb-making. Troops killed a suspected insurgent and detained 23 others in the raid.
In the northern city of Kirkuk, 14 people were killed and 42 were injured Tuesday in what appeared to be a series of coordinated bombings.
A car bomber targeted the convoy of a local police chief, killing one bodyguard and injuring the chief and two others. Another suicide attacker struck a political office in the city, killing two and injuring three.
Three other bombs hit local security forces. Police believe the bombings were carried out by a cell of Al Qaeda in Iraq in response to Zarqawi’s slaying last week.
“These explosions are expected all over Iraq,” said Brig. Gen. Ayad Mohammed Saleh, an Iraqi army spokesman. Iraqi reinforcements have been sent to the city, he said.
Adnan Abdalla, the driver for the police chief in Kirkuk, said he swerved to avoid the approaching suicide attacker.
“But he kept chasing us and trying to detonate,” the driver said. When guards opened fire, the attacker set off his explosives.
Abbas Qadir said his cousin, a yogurt seller, was killed by one of the blasts.
“Where are the Iraqi officials?” Qadir asked with despair. “They said that they killed Zarqawi, but it seems that there are 100 other Zarqawis in Iraq.”
Times staff writers James Gerstenzang in Washington and Saif Rasheed and Zainab Hussein in Baghdad contributed to this report.