Command to send 3,700 American troops to Baghdad

news3_30_7.jpgBAGHDAD (AP) — The US command announced it was sending 3,700 troops to Baghdad to try to quell sectarian violence sweeping the capital, and a US official said more American soldiers would follow as the military gears up to take the streets back from gunmen.

The 172nd Stryker Brigade, which had been due to return home after a year in Iraq, will bring new, faster vehicles to patrol this sprawling city of six million people, enabling security forces to respond faster to the tit-for-tat killings carried out by Shiite and Sunni Arab insurgents.

The presence of more armour is expected to have an intimidating effect on gunmen who in recent weeks have become more brazen in their attacks.

“This will place our most experienced unit with our most mobile and agile systems in support of our main effort,” said Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the top US commander in Iraq. “This gives us a potentially decisive capability to affect security in Baghdad.” President George W. Bush decided this week to send more troops to Baghdad after a surge in reprisal killings which threaten the unity government of Prime Minister Nuri Maliki, which took power May 20.

The wave of violence in Iraq’s most strategic city has dashed administration hopes for substantial reductions in the 127,000-member US mission in Iraq before the November midterm elections.

According to the United Nations, about 6,000 Iraqis were killed in insurgency or sectarian violence in May and June — despite American hopes that the unity government of Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds would win public confidence and ease the security crisis so the US and its allies could draw down.

The US statement did not say when the Stryker Brigade would move to the capital from its base in Mosul, 360 kilometres northwest of Baghdad, but the redeployment was expected soon.

A US military official told the Associated Press that more troops will follow the Stryker Brigade, normally based at Fort Wainwright, Alaska. The official gave no further details and spoke on condition of anonymity because of operational security.

Pentagon officials have said plans call for adding military police, armoured vehicles and tanks to the streets of the capital to work alongside Iraq’s US-trained police and army units. Those units are heavily Shiite, and the presence of Americans is intended to assure Sunnis that the Iraqi forces are not Shiite death squads in uniform.

US and British officials have said Iraqi units, especially the police, have been infiltrated by Shiite groups and have lost the confidence of many Iraqi civilians.

However, the strategy also risks further discrediting Iraqi forces, affecting their morale and making Americans more vulnerable to attack. US casualties have eased in recent months as Americans handed over more security responsibility to the Iraqis and assumed a support role.

On Friday, a top Shiite politician allied with Maliki said Iraqis — and not Americans — should be given responsibility for security and called for an end to “interference in their work” — an apparent reference to US efforts to curb abuses by the Shiite-led police.

But the bitterness of the sectarian conflict and the high stakes at play have proven too much for the Iraqi force in the capital. The surge in attacks also pointed to the failure of Maliki’s security plan for Baghdad, unveiled with great fanfare last month.

Last week, US spokesman Maj. Gen. William Caldwell described Baghdad as a “must-win” not only for Maliki’s government “but for Al Qaeda in Iraq,” which the Americans blame for fanning sectarian hatred.

Sectarian strife worsened after the February 22 bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra and threaten to unravel the fabric of Iraqi society. Tens of thousands of people have abandoned their homes in religiously mixed neighbourhoods, either fleeing abroad or to areas where their sect dominates.

Those who have fled include many of the country’s elite — physicians, professors and other professionals.

On Saturday, the Iraqi soccer federation said the country’s national coach, Akram Ahmed Salman, had resigned after receiving a death threat and fled with his family to the relative safety of the Kurdish-ruled north.

The chairman of Iraq’s National Olympic Committee, and dozens of other sports officials were abducted during a meeting this month in Baghdad, and most remain missing.

Jacques Rogge, president of the International Olympic Committee, renewed calls Saturday for their release.

In a bid to curb the violence, US troops have been cracking down on Shiite and Sunni extremist groups in Baghdad and in cities on major transport routes leading to the capital.

US and Iraqi troops detained 25 men suspected of the July 17 attack on a market in Mahmoudiya, the US military said. About 50 people were killed in the attack — mostly Shiites.

American troops clashed Saturday with gunmen of the Mahdi Army, loyal to Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr, in Diwaniyah, 130 kilometres south of Baghdad, police said. Seven men were wounded but a local militia leader sought by the Americans escaped, police said.

Also Saturday:

— The US command said three more US Marines were killed Thursday in western Iraq.

— A Sunni cleric from a tribe opposed to Al Qaeda in Iraq was killed in Samarra, 95 kilometres north of Baghdad, police said.

— Gunmen assassinated the western regional commander of the Iraqi Border Protection Force, Brig. Gen. Jawad Hadi Selawi, in Karbala, 80 kilometres south of Baghdad, police said.

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