US upbeat on Baghdad clampdown

news2.jpgBAGHDAD (Reuters) — Violence in Baghdad has declined in the past two weeks and all but ended in some formerly deadly neighbourhoods, the US military said in a cautiously upbeat report on Tuesday on a major security clampdown in the city.

A court detained a former minister in the first Cabinet after the US invasion as part of a probe into massive corruption.

On Monday, US President George W. Bush said he was concerned about civil war and was not about to withdraw US troops.

On Tuesday, the chief military spokesman in Iraq said he saw no sign of such a conflict but US forces were focusing on breaking sectarian “death squads” from both Shiite and Sunni Muslim communities.

Twenty-two raids in the past week against such groups in the capital had led to 37 arrests, Major General William Caldwell told a news conference.

He presented statistics showing a 16 per cent drop in the daily average of attacks in Baghdad since August 7, at 21 compared to 25 in the preceding two months.

“What we have seen in August is a downturn,” Caldwell said, two weeks after beefed up US forces and thousands of Iraqi troops and police launched a new phase of what Iraqi and US leaders have called a make-or-break operation to pacify Baghdad.

In three particularly violent areas where intensive raids to root out rebels have been completed this month, life was returning to normal and attacks were rare, Caldwell said — a sentiment endorsed by a number of residents in the mainly Sunni areas of Ghazaliya and Amriya and the mixed district of Dora.

“There are positive things occurring and people are seeing it,” Caldwell said. “This is not something that’s going to happen overnight. But all the signs are very positive.” Attacks in Dora had dropped to virtually none from 20 to 30 a day, he said, after US and Iraqi forces flooded the area, forcing out rebels and sought to win over people with offers of cash and help with municipal projects like collecting trash.

“Most of the shops are still closed,” 30-year-old labourer Sabah Shujairi said of his part of Dora. “But security is getting better. Before, we used to hear gunshots all over but now you rarely notice a thing. There is a relative calm.” 

Economic crisis

A glimpse of the overall economic problems hampering Iraq’s recovery from decades of war and trade sanctions was given by the Central Bank, which reported that inflation hit 70 per cent in July, while unemployment was running at 50 per cent.

Iraq’s potential oil riches are trapped by sabotage and crumbling infrastructure. It suffers crippling fuel shortages.

Asked about Bush’s comment, echoing senior US commanders, that civil war was a risk in Iraq, Caldwell said: “There’s no indications that I see at this point … We do worry about the extremist elements. They have to be brought into check.” Figures leaked from the Pentagon last week indicated that the number of bombs planted to hit troops or civilians in July was almost double that in January, a record since the invasion.

But Caldwell said there had been a decline since last month.

Among the bloodiest incidents on Monday, eight fruit traders were found with their throats slit by a road south of Baghdad.

In Anbar province to the west, where US forces confront Sunni rebels, gunmen killed a bodyguard of the local governor.

The US military hailed its most successful recruiting drive yet for police in the western part of Anbar, taking in 500 new officers to increase the force in the region by 30 per cent.

US commanders see bolstering Iraqi forces as vital for the withdrawal over time of some 130,000 American troops in Iraq.

Iraq’s Commission for Public Integrity is probing the theft of some $4 billion from state funds following the US invasion and occupation in 2003.

Businessman Ayham Samarraie, electricity minister in 2004 and 2005, was detained pending an inquiry. An arrest warrant was also issued for Samarraie’s successor. 

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