BAGHDAD (Reuters) â€” Iraq’s government will pour tens of thousands of Iraqi troops into Baghdad in an unprecedented operation to seal off the city and hunt insurgents who have launched a fresh wa
ve of violence, ministers said on Thursday.
Defence Minister Sadoun Dulaimi said 40,000 Iraqi troops would be deployed in Baghdad for Operation Thunder, the biggest Iraqi military operation since the fall of Saddam Hussein. Backed by the 10,000 US troops in Baghdad, they will set up hundreds of checkpoints and block roads into the capital.
The dramatic rise in suicide bombings and ambushes by mostly Sunni Arab guerrillas has killed more than 600 Iraqis in the last four weeks and raised fears that Iraq could slide towards civil war if the Shiite-led government does not deliver on pledges of stability.
Dulaimi said the crackdown would expand to other parts of Iraq after starting in Baghdad. But he did not say where the extra troops would come from or what their level of training would be. Many Iraqi troops are undertrained and underequipped.
“These operations will aim to turn the government’s role from defensive to offensive,” Iraqi Interior Minister Bayan Jabor said at a news conference.
Despite the announcement, attacks persisted nationwide, with at least 15 people killed in bomb blasts and shootings.
The crackdown is the first major security action undertaken by the new government and comes as US forces conduct a security sweep in rebellious western Iraq.
“We shall not leave any place for terrorists or those who shelter them and incite terrorism in Iraq,” Dulaimi said. “We will stand against all those who try to shed Iraqi blood … We will implement the law with everything we’ve got.”
He said troops would be drawn from interior and defence ministry forces and would begin operating in the capital, with the city divided into sections, a unit responsible for each.
“We will also impose a stringent blockade around Baghdad, like a bracelet around an arm, God willing, and God be with us in our crackdown on the terrorists’ infrastructure. No one will be able to penetrate this blockade,” Dulaimi said.
“You will witness unprecedented, strict security measures.”
The move comes a day after US forces launched Operation New Market, a security sweep in the town of Haditha, 200km northwest of Baghdad, where 1,000 US Marines and sailors, backed by Iraqi troops, are searching for militants.
New market is the second major security operation in the area this month as US and Iraqi forces step up their hunt for followers of Abu Mussab Zarqawi, the militant who heads Al Qaeda’s network in Iraq.
An Internet posting this week apparently from the Al Qaeda organisation in Iraq said Zarqawi, for whom Washington is offering a $25 million bounty, had been wounded in fighting, although it did not say when, where or how.
Other reports on the web said he had been shot in the chest, but these could not be independently confirmed.
Jabor said he had confirmation that Zarqawi had been wounded. But Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari later said there was no firm news. “We don’t yet have accurate information on this matter,” Jaafari told reporters.
Earlier on Thursday, another posting was put on the Internet saying that the leaders of Al Qaeda in Iraq had met and decided to appoint a deputy to Zarqawi until he recovered. However, hours later, another posting dismissed that report.
“We deny what was issued about the appointment of the so-called Abu Hafs or any other name,” said the later posting.
The later statement, unlike the earlier one, was signed by Abu Maysarah Iraqi, who usually posts for Al Qaeda in Iraq.
The new statement said the group had announced Zarqawi’s wounding to show its news credibility and allay fears following reports that the leader had been killed.
“You will hear what will make you happy, faithful brothers, and the allies of Satan will hear what will spite them,” it said, suggesting good news about Zarqawi’s condition.
Despite the conflicting reports about the leadership of the most feared group in the country, insurgent attacks continued.
A suicide car bomber blew up his vehicle near an Iraqi police patrol in Shola, a poor district of the capital, killing three people and wounding six, police said.
In central Baghdad, Thamer Ghaidan, a director general at the industry ministry, was shot dead in a drive-by shooting.
In the south of the capital, gunmen shot dead Professor Moussa Salum, a deputy dean at Baghdad’s Mustansiriya University, along with three bodyguards.
Two Shiite officials were also assassinated in the capital. One was a member of the Shiite Dawa Party, headed by Jaafari, police said. The other, a member of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq was killed when gunmen opened fire on a restaurant he ran.
In Tal Afar, a restive town west of the northern city of Mosul, US forces said they shot dead a child when they returned fire after coming under attack. They said the child had been used by militants as a human shield.