June 14, 2006

Clashes erupt amid Baghdad clampdown

By Omar al-Ibadi and Ibon Villelabeitia

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

Gunmen carrying automatic rifles blocked roads with stones
and tree trunks and exchanged fire with Iraqi soldiers 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. Five Iraqi army tanks moved through Adhamiya and
clashes later subsided.

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 the wreckage after the bomb caused a big fireball.

On Tuesday President Bush told new Prime Minister Nuri
al-Maliki during a surprise visit to Baghdad that the fate and
future of Iraq was "in your hands."

Addressing a televised news conference as the crackdown got
under way, Maliki insisted he was ready to talk to insurgents
who do not have Iraqi blood on their hands.

"The door is open for dialogue with gunmen who oppose the
political process and now want to go back to political activity
under pledges," said Maliki, a tough-talking Shi'ite who has
reached out to some Sunni Arab insurgent groups in a bid to
draw them into the U.S.-sponsored process.

Iraqi officials said operation "Forward Together" would
involve more than 40,000 Iraqi and U.S.-led forces in a sweep
to corner al Qaeda in Iraq following the killing of its leader
Abu Musab al-Zarqawi last week in a U.S. air strike.

Similar operations in the past have failed to stem
bloodshed that has killed thousands and pushed Iraq toward
civil war.

Bush, whose popularity has slumped because of the war that
has killed nearly 2,500 U.S. troops, told Maliki during his
visit that it was time the Iraqi government developed a plan to
improve security.

"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.

Maliki, who last week overcame wrangling among Shi'ite and
Sunni coalition partners to fill the Interior and Defense
posts, is under pressure to deliver on promises to reduce the

He told the news conference the operation was also aimed at
restoring security in Baghdad so that families displaced by
violence could return. Tens of thousands of Iraqis have fled
their homes fearing religious or ethnic hatred.

Despite growing domestic discontent, Bush has resisted
setting a timetable for the withdrawal of 130,000 U.S. troops,
saying this depends on the capability of Iraqi forces.

Reuters reporters saw new army checkpoints backed by
armored vehicles in Baghdad's western Mansour district and an
Iraqi tank in religiously mixed Amiriya, where Sunni Arab
insurgents and U.S. and Iraqi forces have often clashed.

American forces kept a low profile.

As Bush met Iraqi leaders in Baghdad, al Qaeda's new leader
in Iraq, Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, said in a statement posted on
the Internet that "the day of vengeance" was near.

The death of Zarqawi, a Sunni Arab who attacked majority
Shi'ites in a bid to spark civil war, and the appointment of a
Sunni as defense minister, have opened a narrow window of
opportunity to ease communal hatreds, analysts said.

Sunnis, dominant under Saddam Hussein but now the backbone
of the insurgency, view the U.S.-backed process with suspicion.

(Additional reporting by Reuters photographers and
cameramen, Ahmed Rasheed, Michael Georgy and Fredrik Dahl in