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Maliki orders commanders launch Baghdad crackdown

IRAQ: Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki ordered Iraq’s military commanders to speed up preparations for a U.S.-backed crackdown in Baghdad after a string of attacks killed hundreds of people in recent days.

Addressing Iraqi generals over what he called a “delay” in a plan seen as a last-ditch effort to prevent Iraq from pitching into all-out civil war, Maliki said: “I call on you to quickly finish the preparations so that we don’t disappoint people.”

His words came three days after a suicide truck bomb killed 135 people in a Shi’ite area of Baghdad in the worst single bombing since the U.S.-led 2003 invasion.

There is growing frustration among Iraqis over the delay in launching the offensive that Maliki first announced nearly a month ago.

In an incident that threatens to raise tensions between the United States and Iran, gunmen in Iraqi army uniforms kidnapped an Iranian diplomat in Baghdad, Iranian and Iraqi officials said. Tehran blamed the U.S. military and demanded his release.

Iraqi officials say the planned crackdown was due to have started this week but that Iraqi security forces have asked for more time to get their troops in place. A previous offensive last summer failed because too few Iraqi troops were committed.

The new U.S. military commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, a counter-insurgency expert, is also not yet in Iraq but is due to arrive in the next few days. U.S. President George W. Bush has committed 17,500 more troops to the Baghdad push.

In a meeting with Iraqi generals broadcast on state television, Maliki, a Shi’ite, said much had been talked about the planned crackdown, encouraging war-weary Iraqis to believe it represented “the end of the dark tunnel”.

“Either we all win, or we all lose. The whole world is watching us and expecting us to win,” he told the generals.

Suggesting the delay was fuelling violence that has killed more than 1,000 people in the last 10 days, Maliki, who is also the commander in chief of the Iraqi military, said:

“These operations should unite us when we go to the field soon, even though I feel we are already late.

This delay has sent a negative message ... Any delay in implementing the plan will be used by the enemies of the operation and those who want to defeat the will of the ... security forces.”

Maliki has previously said the operation will target Shi’ite and Sunni militants alike, answering criticism that a similar crackdown last summer failed partly because his Shi’ite-led government stopped U.S. troops going after Shi’ite militias.

Despite Maliki’s call for urgency, U.S. officers say there will be a gradual build-up in the offensive.

A U.S. general urged Iraqis at the weekend to be patient. While thousands of Iraqi reinforcements have arrived in Baghdad, most of the extra troops promised by Bush have yet to arrive.

In Sunday’s kidnapping of the senior Iranian diplomat, Iraqi and Iranian officials said the second secretary was snatched by 30 gunmen wearing the uniforms of a special Iraqi army unit that works with U.S. military forces.

An Iraqi official said police close to the scene opened fire on the gunmen and arrested six of them. Later, another security force came to the police station and said they were taking the six to the Serious Crimes building in Baghdad but the police discovered later that they never arrived there.

U.S. forces in Iraq have arrested a number of Iranians, including diplomats, in the past two months, and are still holding five Iranians.

Washington accuses Tehran of aiding militants fighting U.S. forces in Iraq, and U.S. President George W. Bush has vowed to disrupt such support.

Baghdad, Wednesday, Reuters

 

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