BAGHDAD (Reuters) â€” Bombers killed nearly 50 Iraqis on Wednesday, mostly in Baghdad, but the top US commander said a security drive in the capital was making progress and local forces could largely be running Iraq within 12 to 18 months.
General George Casey declined to be drawn on what that might mean for how many American troops could go home, and when.
He told reporters a fierce battle on Monday in which Shiite fighters in a southern city killed at least 20 Iraqi soldiers â€” 13 of them “executed” after they ran out of bullets â€” was not a setback and that continuing operations would show the US-trained Iraqi army had the upper hand in Diwaniya.
A bomb in a crowded wholesale market in central Baghdad killed 24 people and wounded 35, the latest of several attacks in recent days that have broken a lull and may be intended by suspected Sunni insurgents to defy a clampdown on Sunni areas that US officers say has halved the deathrate this month.
Three people were killed when a bomb blasted a bus in the northern oil city of Kirkuk, where Arabs and ethnic Kurds are disputing control. Eleven bus passengers were also wounded.
In the mainly Shiite city of Hilla, south of Baghdad, a bomb on a parked bicycle killed 12 and wounded 38 as young men crowded outside an army recruiting centre. A favoured target for Sunni rebels, such centres also draw many impoverished Iraqis, especially from the newly empowered Shiite Muslim majority. In Shiite Samawa, further south, police shot and killed a man when would-be soldiers threw rocks after being turned away at a recruiting office. Paycheques have drawn many into Iraq’s new security forces, which are key to US hopes for withdrawal. “I don’t have a date, but I can see over the next 12-18 months the Iraqi security forces progressing to a point where they can take on the security responsibilities for the country, with very little coalition support,” Casey said in Baghdad.
Quizzed by reporters about the performance of Iraqi troops in Diwaniya, he said: “[They] acquitted themselves quite well.
They had losses, but they gave much better than they got.” Neither Casey nor the Iraqi defence minister, who visited the Shiite city, would identify their enemy, but local fighters say they are loyal to young Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr, whose movement also has seats in the ruling coalition. Both officials said a campaign would go on to break militia influence in Diwaniya, one of many southern cities where armed Shiite factions are jockeying for power. Sadr’s local Mehdi Army leaders have denied official assertions they lost 50 men.
Defence Minister Abdul Qader Jasim said 13 of his men were killed â€” “executed” â€” after surrendering when they ran out of ammunition. He did not confirm reports from some Diwaniya residents that fighters hanged some soldiers in the street.
Building up Iraq’s forces to take over from some 150,000 mainly American foreign troops is proving a major challenge for the government of Shiite Prime Minister Nuri Maliki, who takes over formal command of Iraq’s army from Casey next month.
Casey said efforts to end opposition to the national unity government would involve both political efforts to ease friction and military action to crush “criminal gangs” who hold out.
Officials and analysts have described the current “Battle of Baghdad”, in which a reinforced US force with Iraqi troops is clearing and dominating troublespots to spread security, is a make-or-break few months for the US project in Iraq.
Andrew Krepinevich, a US strategist and proponent of this “oil-stain” tactic, echoed commanders in saying it needed time. “If you can secure the largest… city in the country and the government can show it can protect itself, then that is an enormous victory,” he told Reuters. “But in practice do the Iraqi government and its US allies have the patience for this? “Will the Iraqi security forces stand and fight?” Casey said it was “troubling” that some Iraqi troops had refused to go to Baghdad but stressed the mutineers were few.
“I’m pleased with the progress to date, but we have a long way to go,” he said. “We’ve all seen progress in Baghdad in the last five or six weeks… The difficult part is going to be holding these areas with Iraqi security forces.” Over the next year to 18 months, he said, Iraqi forces would retain the “substantial presence” of US troops in support. But pressed on when most Americans might leave, he said only that much would depend on conditions and Iraqi government decisions.