- The Washington Times - Friday, January 5, 2007

BAGHDAD — Iraqi forces backed by U.S. troops will begin a neighborhood-by-neighborhood assault on militants in the capital this weekend as a first step in the new White House strategy to contain Sunni insurgents and Shi’ite death squads, key advisers to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said yesterday.

The first details of the plan — a fresh bid to pacify the capital — emerged a day after President Bush and Mr. al-Maliki spoke for nearly two hours by video conference. Both leaders were expected to detail their vision of a new strategy in the coming days.

Al-Maliki aides would not address the scope of the planned assaults, or where specifically they were planned.

The Iraqis did, however, signal continuing disagreement on key issues, including Mr. al-Maliki’s unease over the introduction of more U.S. troops.

Another point of contention has been the Iraqi leader’s repeated refusal of U.S. demands to crush the Mahdi Army, the militia of anti-American Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, one of the prime minister’s most powerful backers.

Any serious drive to curb the chaos and violence in the capital would put not only American forces but Mr. al-Maliki’s Iraqi army in direct confrontation with Sheik al-Sadr’s forces.

The militants are gaining more and more ground as they kill Sunni residents of the city and drive others from their neighborhoods. The explosion of vengeance began after the Feb. 22 bombing by militants of an important Shi’ite shrine, the Golden Dome mosque in Samarra, north of the capital.

Sami al-Askari, an al-Maliki political adviser, said yesterday that Mr. al-Maliki had not acquiesced to the reported White House plan to send as many as 9,000 more U.S. troops to Baghdad alone.

“President Bush told the prime minister he was ready to send additional troops, but Mr. al-Maliki said he would have to talk that over with his senior military officers to see if they were needed,” the adviser said.

Mr. Bush reportedly wants to increase troop strength as part of his developing plan to shake up the U.S. military effort in Iraq, now in its fourth year.

Without a substantial U.S. troop increase there were questions about the success of any new drive to curb violence.

In his discussions with Mr. Bush, the Iraqi prime minister continued to press for a rapid U.S. withdrawal from the capital to bases “on the outskirts of Baghdad,” Mr. al-Askari said. The prime minister has claimed his forces will be ready to assume control of security for the whole country by summer.

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