A SUICIDE BOMBER killed 15 police officers and recruits in central Baghdad on Thursday as US Defence Secretary Robert Gates met Iraqi leaders in an bid to draw up a new plan to end the war.
The latest brutal attack on Iraq’s beleaguered security forces came as Gates met Prime Minister Nouri Maliki on a new security plan for the Iraqi capital, including the option of possibly sending extra US troops.
The attacker triggered his bomb amid a crowd of cadets arriving near the Iraqi police academy off Palestine Street in the heart of Baghdad, interior ministry operations chief Brigadier General Abdul Karim Khalaf said.
Three police officers and 12 recruits were killed and 15 more people wounded, the US military said, citing an Iraqi police report.
Building effective Iraqi forces is now the key mission for both Maliki’s government and the US-led coalition in Iraq, amid plans to withdraw American troops from combat and into a support role.
“What we discussed is how we can help the Iraqi government in establishing better security here in Baghdad,” Gates told reporters after meeting Maliki.
“Our focus was mainly on overall approach, including the possibility of some additional assistance. As I say, we really didn’t discuss any numbers,” he said, playing down calls for thousands of US reinforcements.
Security in three of Iraq’s 18 provinces is under the control of local governors. Maliki is gradually taking charge of his army and should be in command of all 10 divisions by the middle of next year. Nevertheless, insurgent and sectarian violence is at an all-time high, and every day the streets of Baghdad are littered with the bodies of dozens of victims of shadowy death squads operating on behalf of political factions.
With US domestic support for President George W. Bush’s adventure in Iraq collapsing, his new defence secretary is under pressure to come up with a plan to pull Iraq back from civil war and bring the 129,000 US troops home.
Rank and file American troops serving in Iraq told Gates over scrambled eggs and hash browns that more soldiers are needed to stem the violence and give local security forces time to gain strength.
“I really think we need more troops. With more presence on the ground, more troops might hold them off for long enough to where we can get the Iraqi army trained up,” said Specialist Jason Glenn from Missouri.
Gates is examining various options, and on arriving in Baghdad on Wednesday he confirmed that one would be for a “surge” of up to 30,000 extra US soldiers to pacify the capital and give Maliki breathing space.
Other ideas that have been floated include vastly increasing the number of US platoons deployed within company-sized Iraqi units â€” to train them and coordinate air support and medical evacuation missions.
Neither course would allow the United States to rapidly withdraw, which means more strain on an army which chief of staff General Peter Shoomaker said last week “will break” without more troops or change in strategy.
To date, 2,955 US service personnel have died during the Iraq campaign, the latest a marine fatally wounded in Anbar Province, according to an AFP tally based on Pentagon figures. More than 22,000 have been wounded.
The United States spends $8 billion (6b euros) per month in Iraq, according to the Iraq Study Group, while the latest polls show that fewer than a fifth of Americans think their country is winning the war.
The conflict has also shattered support for the United States in the wider Middle East, and many governments now think the situation in Iraq has spiralled out of the control of both Baghdad and Washington.
“Sectarian violence is getting worse,” Ambassador Mukhtar Lamani, the Arab League representative in Baghdad, told AFP.
“According to our information, there were 250 political murders last week, including five tribal sheikhs who came to last week’s reconciliation conference… there are 200 armed groups, each with their own agenda,” he added.
On Thursday, a car bomb and mortar attack killed four Iraqis in western Baghdad, including two women out shopping, a security source said.
Outside the capital, at least four people were shot dead in attacks, including a pharmacist and his brother killed when gunmen burst into their shop in the flashpoint province of Diyala, said a security source.
The defence ministry announced that the Iraq army had killed 12 suspected terrorists and captured 56 more in towns and cities north of Baghdad.
Meanwhile, a Marine Corps squad leader was charged Thursday with 13 murder counts stemming from the killings of 24 civilians in the Iraqi town of Haditha last year, his attorney said.
It is the biggest US criminal case to emerge from the war in Iraq in terms of Iraqis killed.
Staff Sgt. Frank D. Wuterich was charged with 12 counts of murdering individuals and one count of murdering six people by ordering Marines under his charge to “shoot first and ask questions later” when they entered a house, according to charging sheets released by defence attorney Neal Puckett.
Other Marines were expected to be charged.
The Marines, who all belonged to Kilo Company of the Camp Pendleton-based 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines Regiment, have been under investigation since March for the deaths.
The Iraqis were killed in the hours following a roadside bomb that rocked a Marine patrol on the morning of November 19, 2005. The blast killed one Marine and injured two others.
In the aftermath, five men were shot as they approached the scene in a taxi and others â€” including women and children â€” died as Marines went house to house in the area, clearing homes with grenades and gunfire.
Defence attorneys have said their clients were doing what they had been trained to do: Responding to a perceived threat with legitimate force. The Marines remained in combat for months after the killings.
Puckett said Thursday that “Staff Sgt. Wuterich is not guilty in these charges and acted lawfully.” The charges were delivered to defence counsel by courier early Thursday, Puckett said.
A criminal probe of the Haditha incident was launched only after Time magazine reported in March, citing survivor accounts and human rights groups, that innocent people were killed.
A parallel military investigation has examined whether officers in the Marines’ chain of command tried to cover up the events. Results of that probe have not been made public.
The Marine Corps initially reported that 15 Iraqis died in a roadside bomb blast, and Marines killed eight insurgents in an ensuing fire fight. That account was widely discredited and later reports put the number of dead Iraqis at 24.
The case sparked an international outcry when it was first reported. It is one of several cases of alleged US misconduct to have emerged from the Iraq war. This is the second time in six months that Pendleton officials have held a press conference to say they are charging their own in allegedly unlawful killings.