June 14, 2006

Iraq launches Baghdad sweep

By Omar al-Ibadi and Ibon Villelabeitia

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq's prime minister launched a
security crackdown against al Qaeda in Baghdad on Wednesday but
extended an olive branch to Sunni rebels who want to join the
political process in a twin strategy to ease violence.

Backed by tanks and armored vehicles, about 50,000 Iraqi
security forces and 7,200 U.S.-led troops were deployed across
Baghdad, setting up checkpoints and patrolling streets in the
strife-torn capital, officials said.

Clashes erupted between gunmen and Iraqi troops and a car
bomb killed two people, but the clampdown appeared to help keep
violence at bay in a city hit almost daily by carnage and

In Adhamiya, a violent Sunni Arab rebel stronghold, gunmen
armed with automatic rifles blocked roads and exchanged fire
with Iraqi soldiers before Iraqi army tanks rumbled through the
area to restore order, a Reuters reporter at the scene said.

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.

President Bush, a day after his surprise visit to Baghdad
in which he told Iraq's new leader Nuri al- Maliki that the
fate of Iraq was in his hands, said he was confident Maliki
will deliver.

Bush, whose hopes for progress in Iraq got a boost with the
killing of al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi last
week in a U.S. air strike, also said it would be unrealistic to
hope for "zero violence" soon.

"He's got a plan to succeed," Bush said of Maliki, adding
that "success in Iraq depends upon the Iraqis."

Facing sagging public support for a war that has killed
nearly 2,500 U.S. troops, Bush was cautious about prospects for
reducing 130,000 American troops. He reiterated that U.S.
forces can start coming home only as Iraqi forces take over.


As the crackdown got under way, Maliki, whose government of
national unity took office last month, told a televised
conference 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 political process.

Bush said that 26,000 Iraqi soldiers and 23,000 Iraqi
police backed up by 7,200 U.S.-led coalition troops were
involved in the operation to improve security in Baghdad.

"The prime minister has taken immediate action to implement
a plan to improve security, and his top priority is around
Baghdad," he said in Washington.

An Iraqi official said the operation was mounted to corner
al Qaeda in Iraq following Zarqawi's death on June 7.

With a population of 7 million, Baghdad has been the scene
of almost daily car bombs and kidnappings, but similar
operations in the past have failed to stem the bloodshed.

Maliki, who last week overcame infighting among Shi'ite and
Sunni Arab coalition partners to fill the Interior and Defense
cabinet posts, is under pressure to reduce the violence that
has pushed Iraq toward the brink of civil war.

He said he hoped the Baghdad sweep would allow tens of
thousands of Iraqis who fled their homes fearing religious or
ethnic hatred to return.

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, Fredrik Dahl in
Baghdad and Matt Spetalnick in Washington)