Bush to seek Congress support for Iraq plan

US President George W. Bush prepared to urge opponents in Congress on Tuesday to back sending thousands more troops to Iraq, as the UN envoy in the country said it was “sliding into the abyss of sectarianism”. A day after bombers killed 88 people in Baghdad’s bloodiest attack this year, gunbattles and a helicopter crash in the city centre kept nerves on edge. The deaths of two US soldiers were announced, taking to 29 the number killed in the past three days.

As Iraqis awaited the start of Bush’s latest plan to clear the capital of Sunni and Shiite gunmen, his choice to take command of the war, Army Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, told the US Senate that situation in Iraq was “dire” but not hopeless.

Bush, mired in low job-approval ratings, is expected to use his annual State of the Union address in Congress later Tuesday to defend his plan to send some 21,500 reinforcements.

His Democratic opponents now control both houses of Congress, and several Republicans have joined criticism of the plan. Some Democratic lawmakers want Bush to start withdrawing some of the 134,000 US troops from Iraq within four to six months. More than 3,000 have been killed since the 2003 US-led invasion.

Bush and US commanders say the new plan for Baghdad will involve more Iraqi forces than an unsuccessful one last year, increasing the chance of success.

Progress would take time, Petraeus said. “The situation in Iraq is dire. The stakes are high. There are no easy choices. The way ahead will be very hard,” he told senators on the Armed Services Committee.

“But hard is not hopeless.” The White House said Bush would ask Congress and the American people to back his Iraq plan, as “the best way to succeed”. He will propose a bipartisan advisory council of leaders in Congress to consult on Iraq and the broader war on terrorism.

A Washington-Post/ABC News poll gave Bush a job-approval rating of 33 per cent and said 65 per cent of Americans oppose the troop increase, up from 61 per cent immediately after he outlined the strategy January 10.

UN envoy Ashraf Qazi condemned the bombings in Iraq, urging political and religious leaders to “save the country from sliding further into the abyss of sectarianism”.  Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, from Iraq’s Shiite Muslim majority, blamed Monday’s bombings on followers of Saddam Hussein, whose botched execution last month angered many among his fellow minority Sunni Arabs.

‘Balanced approach’

The US military said Iraqi and US troops were taking a “balanced approach” in attacking Shiite and Sunni groups — after charges by the once-dominant Sunnis that Maliki’s government has failed to crack down on Shiites loyal to some of his political allies.

Some 600 members of Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr’s Mehdi Army are in custody, the military said.

A US military statement said in the past 45 days, 52 raids targeted the Mehdi Army and 42 were focused on Sunni insurgents.

Maliki has vowed to tackle all factions regardless of sect in the coming crackdown. Senior Shiite allies say it may be the last chance to avert a collapse of the new state, which has given Shiites the upper hand in Iraq for the first time.

Al Qaeda deputy leader Ayman Zawahri mocked Bush’s Iraq plan and said fighters could wipe out the entire US army.

“Why send 20,000 only? Why not send 50 or 100,000? Aren’t you aware that the dogs of Iraq are pining for your troops’ dead bodies?” Zawahri said in an Internet video posted on Monday.

Maliki’s critics say earlier attempts to stabilise the capital partly failed because of his reluctance to tackle the Mehdi Army. The Pentagon says the Mehdi Army has overtaken Sunni Al Qaeda as the biggest threat.

In raids apparently directed at Sunni insurgents Tuesday, the US military said it killed 16 guerrillas in and around Baghdad and Anbar province in western Iraq.

The helicopter crash in Baghdad was in an area where clashes were reported but the cause was not immediately clear.

The US military said it appeared to be a civilian aircraft. Some residents said it was fired on before the crash and that they saw four bodies in the wreckage.

A US official who declined to be identified said there were no diplomats aboard. The US embassy said it was checking the status and nationality of those involved.

Twelve US soldiers were killed when a helicopter crashed near Baghdad Saturday. Some US officials have been quoted as saying it may have been hit by a shoulder-launched missile.  

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