- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 14, 2007

BAGHDAD — Key U.S. and Iraqi officials yesterday issued cautiously optimistic reports one month into the latest drive to curb sectarian bloodshed in Baghdad but warned that months would pass before the operation could be labeled a success.

Army Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, the U.S. military spokesman, also said the level of sectarian killings had dropped significantly in the month since the operation began.

“By the indicators that the government of Iraq has, it has been extremely positive. But I would caution everybody about patience, about diligence. This is going to take many months, not weeks, but the indicators are all very positive right now,” Gen. Caldwell said.

At least 39 Iraqis were killed or found dead nationwide yesterday, victims of diminished but far from eradicated sectarian violence since the U.S.-led security drive began in Baghdad a month ago. Police said 16 of the dead were executed in Baghdad, and their tortured bodies were dumped throughout the city.

Brig. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, spokesman for the Baghdad security operation, said the number of civilians killed had plunged to 265 since the operation started Feb. 14 compared with 1,440 during the preceding monthlong period, because of a sharp reduction in killings, kidnappings and bombings.

One reason mentioned for the lowered violence in the capital is the continued absence of radical Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who remained in Iran “as of 24 hours ago,” Gen. Caldwell said. The anti-American chief of the Mahdi Army militia was reported to have taken refuge in the neighboring Shi’ite theocracy before the security operation.

“He’s a very significant part of this political process. We do continue to track his whereabouts,” Gen. Caldwell said at a briefing to mark the end of the first month of the security drive.

Although Gen. Caldwell’s assessment was largely positive, he expressed concern about a spike last week in the number of what he called “high-profile” car bombings.

“If the high-profile car bombs can be stopped or brought down to a much lower level, we’ll just see an incredible difference in the city overall. Murders and executions have come down by over 50 percent. … But the high-profile car bombs is the one we’re really focused on because that’s what will start that whole cycle of violence again,” he said.

Meanwhile, thousands of cheering Kurds gave Iraqi President Jalal Talabani a hero’s welcome home from 17 days of medical treatment in Jordan after he collapsed and fell unconscious.

Motorists plastered their cars with portraits of the former Kurdish guerrilla leader, honked their horns and played loud music as they jammed the center of the northern city of Sulaimaniyah.

The 73-year-old president was flown to Jordan after he collapsed Feb. 25 in Sulaimaniyah, 160 miles northeast of Baghdad, and was admitted to King Hussein Medical Center in Amman.

Doctors said he suffered from exhaustion and dehydration caused by lung and sinus infections.

Mr. Talabani, who seemed weakened yesterday and appeared to have lost a few pounds, said he would return to work this week.

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