June 14, 2006

Clashes, car bomb as Iraq launches Baghdad sweep

By Omar al-Ibadi and Ahmed Rasheed

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Clashes broke out between insurgents
and Iraqi security forces and a car bomb killed at least two
people in Baghdad on Wednesday as the government launched a
security clampdown to root out al Qaeda militants.

Gunmen carrying automatic rifles blocked roads with stones
and tree trunks and exchanged fire with Iraqi troops in
Adhamiya, a Sunni insurgent stronghold that is one of Baghdad's
most dangerous areas, a Reuters reporter at the scene said.

Civilians fled the area but there were no immediate reports
of casualties. Three Iraqi army tanks were dispatched to
Adhamiya. The clashes subsided later on Wednesday.

In northern Baghdad, a car bomb targeting a police patrol
killed two people and wounded seven. A Reuters photographer who
was 10 meters (yards) from the blast saw a man and a teenager
burning amid wreckage after the bomb caused a big fireball.

The clampdown, which included extra checkpoints and Iraqi
security patrols backed by tanks and armored vehicles, came a
day after President Bush met new Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki,
who is under pressure to rein in violence.

U.S. and Iraqi forces have carried out several such
operations in the past but have failed to stem the bloodshed
that has killed tens of thousands since the U.S.-led invasion
in 2003, and pushed Iraq toward civil war.

Iraqi officials said the operation would involve more than
40,000 Iraqi and U.S.-led forces as part of a sweep to put
further pressure on al Qaeda in Iraq following the killing of
its leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi last week in a U.S. air strike.

In a surprise visit to Iraq, Bush, who faces low popularity
ratings over a war that has killed nearly 2,500 U.S. troops,
told Maliki the fate and future of Iraq was "in your hands."

"The decisions you and your cabinet make will determine as
to whether or not your country succeeds, can govern itself, can
defend itself, can sustain itself," Bush told Maliki, whose
self-styled government of national unity took office last


With a population of seven million, Baghdad has been the
scene of daily carnage and kidnappings.

Restoring some security in Baghdad would be a symbolic
victory for Maliki, a tough-talking Shi'ite who last week
overcame fierce wrangling among his Shi'ite and Sunni coalition
partners to fill the key Interior and Defense ministries.

Despite growing domestic unease, Bush has resisted setting
a public timetable for the withdrawal of 130,000 American
troops, making clear this will depend on the capability of
U.S.-trained Iraqi forces to take over security.

Maliki told Bush during his second visit to Iraq since the
2003 war that the Iraqi government was determined to defeat the
insurgents so U.S. and other forces could withdraw.

Reuters reporters saw additional army checkpoints backed by
armored vehicles in Baghdad's western Mansour district and an
Iraqi tank in religiously mixed Amiriya, which has seen
frequent clashes between Sunni Arab insurgents and U.S. and
Iraqi forces.

American forces were not in sight.

There was little evidence of additional troops in the
dangerous, mostly Sunni area of Dora, where the government said
it would also focus its security efforts.

As Bush talked to Iraqi leaders in the heavily fortified
Green Zone on Tuesday, a Web statement said al Qaeda's new
leader in Iraq had vowed to avenge the killing of Zarqawi.

"The day of vengeance is near and your strong towers in the
Green Zone will not protect you," said the statement, posted on
an Internet site often used by Islamist militants and signed by
the new leader Abu Hamza al-Muhajir.


U.S. and Iraqi officials have hailed the killing of
Zarqawi, a Sunni Arab like most guerrillas in Iraq, as a major
blow to al Qaeda militants while cautioning it will not end

"There are going to be tough days ahead, and more sacrifice
for Americans, as well as Iraqis," Bush told U.S. troops.

"Our military will stay on the offensive. We will continue
to hunt down people like Mr. Zarqawi, and bring them to
justice," he said to applause.

Iraqi officials billed Wednesday's clampdown as one of the
biggest such operations in the last three years.

"It is an operation to step up pressure on al Qaeda in
Baghdad," national security adviser Mowaffaq al-Rubaie told
state television on Tuesday.

(Additional reporting by Reuters photographers and
cameramen, and by Michael Georgy and Fredrik Dahl in Baghdad)