IRAQ imposed draconian new security rules on its war-torn capital overnight as US President George W. Bush accused Iranian agents of supplying weapons that have killed scores of US troops.
The plan – now dubbed “Fard al-Qanun” or “Operation Law and Order” – swung into effect with thousands of Iraqi troops throwing up roadblocks and carrying out searches across the city as US jet bombers roared overheard.
Political tensions were also running high, with supporters of radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr denying a claim by the US military that the figurehead of the feared Mahdi Army militia had fled across the border to Iran.
“Today, the Baghdad security plan is in effect. There will be no safe haven for outlaws, even in holy places, because human life is holier,” Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said during a visit to the Shiite holy city of Karbala.
Under a decree issued yesterday by Mr Maliki’s operational commander, a joint Iraqi police and military force will have sweeping new emergency-style powers to deal with unrest in Baghdad, a city steeped in sectarian bloodletting.
Nevertheless, US officers and Mr Bush himself warned that the plan – which by May will see 84,000 American and Iraqi personnel in the neighbourhoods and streets of Baghdad – would take time to turn back the tide of violence.
“It’s a plan that’s beginning to take shape,” Mr Bush said at his first press conference of 2007, cautioning that “the operation to secure Baghdad is going to take time, and there will be violence”.
“The fundamental question is, can we help this government have the security force level necessary to make sure that the ethnic cleansing that was taking place in certain neighbourhoods is stopped?” Mr Bush said.
The security plan is expected to bring US forces into more confrontation with Shiite militias, which up until now have been able to operate under a degree of political cover from factions in Mr Maliki’s government.
US military spokesman Major General William Caldwell welcomed the security decree, which he said showed that such political interference had stopped and that Iraqi military units would be free to quell sectarian violence.
Washington accuses Iran of fomenting unrest in Iraq by supplying some Shiite factions with cash, weapons and training to attack coalition and Iraqi forces.
Mr Bush joined his voice to that of military officers in Baghdad who allege that the Al-Qods Force, the undercover wing of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, had supplied devastating armour-piercing bombs to Iraqi militias.
“I can say with certainty that the Qods Force, a part of the Iranian government, has provided these sophisticated IEDs that have harmed our troops,” he said, referring to improvised explosive devices like roadside bombs.
Maj-Gen Caldwell said that the Iranian-built bombs, known as “explosively formed penetrators” or EFPs, had killed 170 US and allied soldiers and wounded 650 since they appeared on the Iraqi battlefield in May 2004.
“We’re asking the Iranian government to assist in stopping that occurring. The reason why we have gone public is because it is a force protection issue… because of the devastating effect the EFP produces,” he said.
Iran’s role in Iraq was also under the spotlight in the case of Sadr, the most powerful of Iraq’s Shiite militia leaders and a fierce critic of the US despite his close ties with Mr Maliki’s government.
Maj-Gen Caldwell told reporters that US forces “closely track” Sadr and believe that he left Iraq last month and travelled to Iran, a charge fiercely denied by the cleric’s supporters, who nevertheless failed to produce him.
Iran’s state news agency IRNA quoted an unnamed official as denying that Sadr had entered the country.
Sadr has not been seen publicly in several weeks, but Nassar al-Rubaie, the head of the cleric’s parliamentary bloc, insisted he was “still inside Iraq and working normally”, without fear of US forces.
Bassem al-Aathari, an official at Sadr’s office in Najaf, said the cleric was still in the Shiite holy city.
Meanwhile, the ongoing fighting claimed at least 10 more lives, including four civilians killed in a car bomb attack that smashed windows at a children’s hospital in a mixed area in southeastern Baghdad.