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Pentagon chief visits Iraq

Times Staff Writer

All of the U.S. troops deployed as part of President Bush’s military buildup are now in Iraq, a military spokesman said Friday, 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 Friday on an unannounced visit. He is the latest in a string of high-ranking U.S. military and political officials to visit for meetings with Iraqi leaders, who are being pressed to enact political reforms that might ease the insurgency.

Gates arrived at a capital strangely hushed, the result of a curfew still in place after the bombing Wednesday of a revered Shiite Muslim mosque.

The effects of the curfew were most evident in the nightly police tally of slaying 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. The victim was a man who had been shot to death and dumped near a bus station.

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Outside the southern city of Basra, a Sunni Muslim mosque was attacked in what was believed to be an act avenging the bombing of the Shiite Golden Mosque shrine in Samarra. Basra residents said men had planted bombs inside the Sunni site. A police spokesman said they gained entry by posing as TV 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 previous attack on the Samarra shrine, in February 2006. During Friday prayer services, Shiite and Sunni clerics called for unity among Muslims. Some used their sermons to step up rhetoric against the U.S. military presence, 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 Furaiji, leading prayers in the Shiite stronghold of Sadr City, in Baghdad.

At a Sunni mosque, Sheik Ibrahim Nima had a similar message. “It is the occupation forces that are responsible for what has happened so far and what is happening now: killings, lootings and kidnapping the innocent people,” he said.

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Pentagon chief Gates is the third U.S. official to visit Iraq in a week, and he is expected to deliver the same message as the others: Washington wants Prime Minister Nouri 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 former members of Saddam Hussein’s Baathist Party regime to return to jobs in the government and 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 icasualties.org, which tracks military casualties in the war.

The latest U.S. combat deaths occurred Thursday in northern Iraq. Three soldiers were killed outside Kirkuk by an explosion near their vehicle. Another was killed in Diyala province when a patrol came under small-arms fire. The fifth casualty, a noncombat death, occurred Wednesday, according to a military statement that gave no details.

The Air Force said the F-16 was carrying one crew member when it crashed early Friday while flying a “close-air-support mission” from its base about 50 miles north of Baghdad. The brief statement gave no other details.

Army Lt. Col. Christopher Garver, a military spokesman, said the last of the additional 28,500 troops deployed to Iraq as part of the security plan had arrived. Garver said, however, that members of the final brigade would take 30 to 60 days to “get integrated into the area in which they are operating.”

“They have to get to know the troops, the Iraqi army they are staying with. They have to get to know the people who live in these areas. It’s not going to be like switching on a light,” he said.

The military repeatedly has said it will take months for the full effect of the security plan to be felt but that there are signs of progress, citing decline in sectarian killings and the cooperation of some Sunni tribal leaders who once supported the rebels. Lately, however, sectarian killings have begun to rise again, according to both Iraqi police and U.S. military data.

The military says the increase has not been substantial and is part of the roller-coaster effect it says is to be expected because of the varying levels of cooperation in different areas.

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“Some areas have been through rougher times, and it may take more time to recover and get to a new mind-set” that leads people to work more closely with troops to prevent violence, Garver said.

One sign of progress, he said, was the discovery of more homemade explosive devices than professional-grade bombs in western Al Anbar province, once a stronghold of Sunni insurgents. This could be the result of increased cooperation of tribal leaders, which has led to the discovery of a greater number of weapons caches, he said.

tina.susman@latimes.com

Special correspondents in Hillah, Kirkuk and Baghdad contributed to this report.


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