Wednesday, January 10, 2007

BAGHDAD — Iraq’s prime minister has told Shi’ite militiamen to surrender their arms or face an all-out assault by U.S.-backed Iraqi forces, senior Iraqi officials said yesterday, as President Bush said he will commit more than 21,000 American combat troops to the war.

Under pressure from the United States, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has agreed to crack down on fighters controlled by his most powerful political ally, Muqtada al-Sadr, a radical Shi’ite cleric, officials said. Until now, Mr. al-Maliki had resisted the move.

“Prime Minister al-Maliki has told everyone that there will be no escape from attack,” said a senior Shi’ite legislator and close al-Maliki adviser. “The government has told the Sadrists: ‘If we want to build a state we have no other choice but to attack armed groups.’ ”

In his address to the American people last night, Mr. Bush said Mr. al-Maliki had promised that U.S. forces would have a free hand and that “political or sectarian interference will not be tolerated.”

He also warned that the United States expected the Iraqi leader to keep those promises. “America’s commitment is not open-ended,” Mr. Bush said. “If the Iraqi government does not follow through on its promises, it will lose the support of the American people and it will lose the support of the Iraqi people.”

The Iraqi prime minister on Saturday announced that his government would implement a new security plan for Baghdad, which consists of neighborhood-by-neighborhood sweeps by Iraqi forces backed by U.S. troops.

In the past, the Iraqi government has tried to prevent American military operations against Sheik al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, while giving U.S. forces a free hand against Sunni militants. The Bush administration has pushed Mr. al-Maliki, who took office in May, to curb his militant allies or allow U.S. troops to do the job.

Although Mr. al-Maliki withdrew political protection from the Mahdi Army, there was no guarantee that the Shi’ite fighters would be routed easily from the large and growing area of Baghdad under their control.

The militia has more fighters, weapons and sophistication today than it did in 2004, when it battled U.S. forces to a standstill in two strongholds, the Shi’ite holy city of Najaf and Sadr City, Baghdad’s sprawling Shi’ite slum.

Sunni militants, meanwhile, have put up fierce resistance in the five days since Mr. al-Maliki announced his new security initiative for Baghdad.

Iraqi and U.S. troops have battled Sunni insurgents along Haifa Street in central Baghdad in two major battles.

The neighborhood is about 21/2 miles north of the Green Zone, site of the Iraqi government headquarters, the U.S. Embassy and base for thousands of American soldiers.

Eighty suspected insurgents were killed in the fighting — 50 of them on Tuesday alone, in an assault backed by U.S. troops, fighter jets and attack helicopters.

Mr. al-Maliki has not commented on the Bush administration’s plans to create a set of benchmarks to measure the Iraqi government’s progress on improving security.

Washington wants the prime minister to come up with a plan to equitably share the country’s oil wealth, ease restrictions on former Ba’ath Party members and hold provincial elections — steps regarded as critically important to drawing Sunnis into the political process.

An Iraqi general, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to disclose details of the plan, said a mainly Kurdish force would be sent into the Sadr City slum in northeast Baghdad, which serves as headquarters of the Mahdi Army.

The general said Kurds, who are Sunni but not Arab, were being used against the Shi’ite militia because soldiers from other Iraqi units were likely to refuse to fight fellow Shi’ites. An estimated 80 percent of Iraq’s army is Shi’ite.

Under the new security plan, the general said, U.S. and Iraqi troops will sweep Baghdad neighborhoods in an effort to dislodge the Mahdi Army, as well as Sunni extremists — including al Qaeda in Iraq and two of its allied groups, the Ansar al-Sunnah Army and the Omar Brigade.

Iraqi and U.S. officials said Iraqi commanders will be put in charge of each of nine city districts. Each commander will operate independently of Iraqi military headquarters.

Mr. al-Maliki has named Lt. Gen. Aboud Gambar, an Iraqi general who was taken prisoner of war by U.S. forces during the 1991 Gulf War, as the overall commander.

Gen. Gambar, a Shi’ite, will have two assistants, one from the police and one from the army, Iraqi military officers said on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to disclose the information. Gen. Gambar will report directly to Mr. al-Maliki.

The latest drive to pacify Baghdad is at least the fourth since the war began. All have had only limited success, with insurgents and militants swiftly returning to neighborhoods after U.S. and Iraqi military forces departed.

In the most recent of these operations, Iraq’s army fielded fewer troops than promised. That made it impossible to maintain control of areas that U.S. forces had cleared of gunmen.

Police yesterday reported that at least 92 persons had died violently or been found dead across the country.

In a single deadly attack, Sunni gunmen opened fire on a convoy of buses carrying Shi’ite Muslim pilgrims home from the hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Muslim holy places in Saudi Arabia, said police and Akeel al-Khazaali, the governor of the southern province of Karbala. At least 11 persons were killed and 14 wounded.

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