- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 17, 2007

BAGHDAD — Security forces in Baghdad have full control in only 40 percent of the city five months into the pacification campaign, a top American general said yesterday as U.S. troops began an offensive against two al Qaeda strongholds on the capital’s southern outskirts.

The military, meanwhile, reported that paratroopers had found the ID cards of two missing American soldiers at an al Qaeda safe house 100 miles north of where they were captured last month, but there was no sign of the men. The house contained computers, video equipment and weapons.

Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno said American troops began the offensive in Baghdad’s Arab Jabour and Salman Pac neighborhoods Friday night. It was the first time in three years that American soldiers entered those areas, where al Qaeda militants build car bombs and launch Katyusha rockets at American bases and Shi’ite Muslim neighborhoods.

The overall commander in Iraq, Gen. David H. Petraeus, said during a press conference with visiting Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates that the operation would put troops into key al Qaeda-held areas surrounding Baghdad.

Gen. Odierno said there was a long way to go in retaking the city from Shi’ite Muslim militias, Sunni Arab insurgents and al Qaeda terrorists. He said only about “40 percent is really very safe on a routine basis” — with about 30 percent lacking control and a further 30 percent suffering “a high level of violence.”

With Baghdad and Basra — the country’s second largest city and gateway to the Persian Gulf — under curfew, violent deaths were down dramatically yesterday. Only three persons were reported to have been killed or found dead in sectarian violence.

That did not include the discovery of 13 bodies of a tae kwon do team kidnapped last year in western Iraq while driving to a training camp in neighboring Jordan. The bodies were found 65 miles west of Ramadi, police and hospital officials said.

The U.S. military revealed that identification cards belonging to the two missing soldiers were found June 9 near Samarra but said no one was in the safe house. Troops approaching the building came under fire from nearby trees, suffering two wounded before air support intervened, the military said.

Spc. Alex R. Jimenez and Pvt. Byron Fouty were snatched in a raid on their 10th Mountain Division unit on May 12 near Youssifiyah. The body of a third soldier taken in the raid, Pfc. Joseph Anzack Jr., was found floating in the Euphrates River. Four other American soldiers and an Iraqi translator were killed in the ambush.

The Islamic State of Iraq, a front group for al Qaeda, claimed in a video posted on the Internet this month that all three missing soldiers were killed and buried. The militants showed images of the military IDs of Spc. Jimenez, 25, of Lawrence, Mass., and Pvt. Fouty, 19, of Waterford, Mich., but offered no proof they were dead.

The military announced that a American soldier was killed Friday by a roadside bomb in southern Baghdad and an Ohio National Guard pilot died when his F-16 fighter crashed shortly after takeoff from Balad Air Base in central Iraq.

In Baghdad, aides to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said talks yesterday between Mr. Gates and the Iraqi leader were difficult.

Two top advisers to the prime minister said Mr. al-Maliki, a Shi’ite, objected vigorously to the new U.S. policy of arming and training Sunni militants in the fight against al Qaeda.

A third said Mr. Gates told Mr. al-Maliki that political and legislative action sought by the United States, including a new law to share oil revenues among all Iraqis, must be complete by September when the defense secretary has to report to Congress on progress in Iraq.

The top U.S. commander in the Middle East, Adm. William Fallon, delivered a similar message to Iraqi leaders on June 10, and John Negroponte, the No. 2 State Department official, reinforced it in a visit at midweek.