- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 7, 2007

BAGHDAD — In the opening battle of a major drive to tame the violent capital, the Iraqi army reported it killed 30 militants yesterday in a firefight in a Sunni insurgent stronghold just north of the heavily fortified Green Zone.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, speaking only hours earlier at a ceremony marking the 85th anniversary of the Iraqi army, announced his intention for the open-ended attempt to crush the militant fighters who have left Baghdad in the grip of sectarian violence.

Hassan al-Suneid, a key aide and member of Mr. al-Maliki’s Dawa Party, said the Iraqi leader had committed 20,000 soldiers to the operation and would call upon American troops and air power only when needed.

A stern Mr. al-Maliki told the nation the operation in Baghdad would continue “until all goals are achieved and security is ensured for all citizens.”

“We are fully aware that implementing the plan will lead to some harassment for all beloved Baghdad residents, but we are confident they fully understand the brutal terrorist assault we all face,” he said.

State television said eight militants, including five Sudanese fighters, were captured in the battle near Haifa Street, a Sunni insurgent stronghold on the west bank of the Tigris River, where police reported finding the bodies of 27 torture victims earlier in the day.

Police reported 97 persons were killed or found dead, 80 of them assassination victims dumped in Mosul, Baghdad and south of the capital.

Mr. al-Suneid, who is also a member of parliament, said the new drive would focus initially on Sunni insurgent strongholds in western Baghdad.

Sunnis were likely to object, given that a large measure of today’s violence in Baghdad is the work of Shi’ite militias, loyal to Mr. al-Maliki’s key political backer, the anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

Mr. al-Suneid and Mr. al-Maliki insisted that this drive to contain militants, as opposed to a largely ineffective joint operation with American forces in the second half of last year, would succeed because it would be in the hands of Iraqi commanders who have been promised American backup and air power if they call for it.

But U.S. political and military leaders — in a message of congratulation on Iraq’s Army Day — tempered Iraqi claims of full independence.

“As stated by the prime minister today, [U.S. forces] will provide appropriate assistance as determined by Iraqi and [American] field commanders, for the implementation of the new plan for securing Baghdad and its surrounding environs,” said the statement from U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and overall American commander Gen. George W. Casey.

Mr. al-Suneid said President Bush signed off on the plan when he and Mr. al-Maliki spoke by videoconference Thursday. The two leaders began formulating the operation during a November summit in Amman, Jordan.

Last summer, the U.S. military and Iraqi army flooded the capital with 12,000 additional troops.

The last half of 2006 was one of the most violent periods in the center and west of the country since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion to topple dictator Saddam Hussein.

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