- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 17, 2007

BAGHDAD (Reuters) — U.S. and Iraqi forces sweeping through Baghdad met little resistance yesterday in an offensive that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki told President Bush had been a “brilliant success” so far.

Mr. al-Maliki is under pressure to ease sectarian violence threatening to plunge Iraq into all-out civil war and he renewed a pledge to Mr. Bush during a video conference that troops would hunt down militants regardless of their sect.

Brig. Gen. Qassim Moussawi, a spokesman for the Iraqi general overseeing the offensive, said the number of violent deaths reported in the capital had fallen from 40 to 50 a day to 10.

The commander of U.S. forces in Baghdad confirmed violence had declined but warned of tough days ahead. He said “bloodthirsty” militants were lying low, trying to get a measure of the thousands of troops sweeping across the city.

The U.S. military said it had no indication the al Qaeda leader in Iraq had been wounded or killed after Iraqi Interior Ministry sources said Abu Ayyub al-Masri had been wounded in clashes with Iraqi forces north of Baghdad.

The talks between Mr. al-Maliki and Mr. Bush were the first reported between the two since Operation Imposing Law got under way.

“The plan has achieved brilliant success in its early days and the government will deal firmly with any outlaw group, regardless of their affiliation,” a statement from the prime minister’s office quoted Mr. al-Maliki as telling Mr. Bush.

Mr. al-Maliki, a Shi’ite, has frustrated his U.S. backers with his reluctance to confront the Mahdi Army, a Shi’ite militia that Washington calls the greatest threat in Iraq.

The crackdown aims to clear districts of militias and insurgents and then secure them. Many see it as the last chance to avert an all-out war between majority Shi’ites and Sunnis.

Attacks by Sunni insurgent groups such as al Qaeda have also declined in the last days. Al-Masri, an Egyptian, assumed the leadership of al Qaeda in Iraq after Jordanian militant Abu Musab Zarqawi was killed in a U.S. air strike in June 2006.

From Geneva, meanwhile, the world’s migration body estimated that 1 million Iraqis would flee their homes this year.

Jemini Pandaya, spokeswoman for the International Organization for Migration, said the organization’s estimate was made “on the assumption that security conditions will continue much as they are.”

The possibility of neighboring countries, such as Syria, closing their borders would mean even more of the displaced would only be able to get as far as other parts of Iraq.

Nearly 4 million Iraqis have fled their homes since the war began, more than half of them have left the country and the remainder settled elsewhere in Iraq.

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