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U.S. Rethinks Strategy to Cut Iraqi Violence

Times Staff Writer

The top U.S. military spokesman in Iraq acknowledged Thursday that a much-touted security crackdown by American and Iraqi forces had failed to reduce violence in the capital and called the results “disheartening.”

With attacks in Baghdad having increased by 22% in the first three weeks of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which began in late September, Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV said that military planners might have to go back to the drawing board.

“We’re obviously very concerned about what we’re seeing in the city,” Caldwell said. “We’re taking a lot of time to go back and look at the whole Baghdad security plan. We’re asking ourselves if the conditions under which it was first devised and planned still exist today, or have the conditions changed and therefore a modification to that plan needs to be made.”

Despite the joint operation, launched in June, sectarian violence between Sunni and Shiite Arabs continues unabated. And U.S. troops are increasingly being targeted, Caldwell said. He charged that Iraqi paramilitary fighters were attacking American forces more frequently because of the upcoming U.S. midterm election, in which the Iraq conflict and the American lives being lost are key issues.

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Caldwell said that at least 73 U.S. troops had been killed so far this month, putting October on track to be the bloodiest month for American forces since the battle of Fallouja in 2004.

The U.S. military also announced that a Marine died Thursday and two U.S. soldiers on Wednesday. Ten American troops were killed Tuesday.

On Thursday, seven suicide attackers struck across northern Iraq, targeting American and Iraqi troops as well as civilians. The bombing attacks killed at least 20 Iraqis and wounded 80. No U.S. troops were reported killed in the blasts.

Elsewhere, at least 30 Iraqis died in various attacks.

Most of the U.S. deaths this month have taken place in Baghdad despite the security crackdown aimed at reducing sectarian killings in the capital.

In July, Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr. ordered the extended deployment of about 4,000 troops from the 172nd Stryker Brigade, moving them from northern Iraq to bolster the Baghdad campaign. In all, about 12,000 Iraqi and American troops were added as part of the sweeping plan to conduct house-to-house searches in the city and disarm Sunni and Shiite militias.

At the time, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, answering reporters’ questions via e-mail, said the offensive would “go a long ways toward determining the future of Iraq and the future of the Middle East.”

He added that “the United States simply cannot achieve its goals of a democratic, stable and secure Iraq if the unacceptable levels of violence that we had in Baghdad in recent months continue.”

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But despite the addition of thousands of heavily armed troops, the bloodshed has raged on. At the central Baghdad morgue, workers have received thousands of bodies; most of the victims were found executed and showed signs of torture.

In September, the Iraqi Health Ministry reported that more than 2,660 civilians were killed in Baghdad. By comparison, about 2,150 people died violently in May, just before the offensive.

“In Baghdad alone, we’ve seen a 22% increase in attacks during the first three weeks of Ramadan, as compared to the three weeks preceding Ramadan,” Caldwell said.

In Dora, one of the first neighborhoods American commanders declared “cleared” as part of the crackdown, rebels on Thursday detonated at least one bomb targeting police, and elsewhere in the largely Sunni district, gunmen battled officers, killing four of them in a brazen attack on a police station.

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Attacks in Dora increased from an average of 3.8 per day during the summer to 6.5 per day between Sept. 24 and Oct. 10, according to the U.S. military. This week, Caldwell said, American troops have returned to the neighborhood to try to restore order.

Part of the problem with the security operation, officials say, is that it has focused on disarming Sunni Muslim neighborhoods west of the Tigris River while ignoring Shiite Muslim areas to the east.

Going into Shiite neighborhoods has been politically sensitive.

Privately, American officers say Shiite militias, some alleged to be affiliated with Iraqi government security forces, are responsible for most of the attacks against U.S. troops as well as on Sunni civilians. But commanders often find themselves stymied when going after Shiite militias, especially those affiliated with anti-American cleric Muqtada Sadr, whose political bloc holds 30 seats in parliament.

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Earlier in the week, Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, a Shiite, ordered the release of Sheik Mazen Saedi, a leading member of Sadr’s organization who had been arrested by U.S. troops on suspicion of “illegal activity,” Caldwell confirmed Thursday. He did not specify what crimes Saedi was suspected of committing.

Maliki relies on Sadr’s support and has on other occasions stepped in to protect the Shiite cleric’s group.

Adding to the problem is that the Shiite-dominated Iraqi security forces have been riddled with problems, including the allegations of ties to militias and a heavy casualty rate. Of the 312,000 trained Iraqi security forces, 8,000 have been killed and 16,000 wounded.

Caldwell also acknowledged that Sunni rebels still had the ability to mount deadly strikes at U.S. forces in the capital.

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“We’ve seen a tremendous pushback by some Sunni extremist elements,” the general said. “It’s mostly in the Sunni areas where we’ve found the extremists operating and Al Qaeda elements operating.”

Though Baghdad is the center of violence, insurgents continue to attack across the nation.

In the northern city of Mosul on Thursday, six car bombers blew themselves up near U.S. convoys and Iraqi police stations in coordinated attacks that killed at least 10 Iraqis and wounded 20 others, officials said.

One of the bombers rigged explosives to a fuel tank, which he detonated outside a police building in central Mosul. Two other bombers targeted American patrols, Caldwell said.

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In response to the flare-up of violence, he added, local authorities closed all entrances to the city and imposed a curfew.

In the ethnically mixed city of Kirkuk, also in the north, a suicide car bomber detonated explosives outside a bank, killing 10 people and wounding 60 others, according to local authorities.

Another bomb exploded close to a convoy carrying a local police commander, who survived the attack. A third bomb in the city hit a police patrol, injuring three officers, authorities said.

Elsewhere in Kirkuk, a car bomb killed two Iraqi soldiers.

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In Baghdad, at least nine people were killed or found dead in various attacks.

Just south of the capital, gunmen opened fire on the motorcade of former Deputy Prime Minister and onetime Pentagon favorite Ahmad Chalabi as he returned from a funeral in Najaf. One of his bodyguards was injured, police said.

In Khalis, north of Baqubah, a bomb blew up near a bakery, killing seven people.

In the southern city of Basra, three people were killed in various attacks and rockets were fired at British bases and at the city’s airport, according to the police.

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Also in the south, black-clad Shiite militiamen swarmed the oil-rich city of Amarah, all but taking over the town amid clashes spurred by the killing of the provincial head of intelligence a day earlier and the retaliatory kidnapping of a militia leader’s brother. The intelligence director, Col. Ali Qassem Tamimi, was killed along with five of his guards by a roadside bomb.

Angry tribal relatives accused Shiite cleric Sadr’s Al Mahdi militia in the slaying. They took revenge by kidnapping the brother of the militia’s local leader, threatening to kill him unless the Al Mahdi army turns in the man who set the roadside bomb by sundown today.

Instead, heavily armed Al Mahdi fighters poured into the city, taking over police stations and ordering people to stay in their homes.

Local policemen barricaded themselves in their stations as militiamen fired mortar shells and rocket-propelled grenades at their headquarters. At least seven people died in the fighting, and five were reported injured.

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“Amarah now is controlled completely by gangs of Mahdi army,” said a doctor in the city who requested anonymity. “They are shooting at the police headquarters building.”

Over the summer, the British military evacuated Basra province in order to turn it over to Iraqi government forces.

louise.roug@latimes.com

Times staff writers Borzou Daragahi and Raheem Salman in Baghdad and special correspondents in Irbil, Baqubah and Kirkuk contributed to this report.

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