Tactical shift as dozens of blasts rock Baghdad

Iraqi military spokesman Brigadier Qassim Moussawi said the blasts were part of a new security offensive against militants in the capital. A US military spokeswoman said she had no details on the blasts. The explosions, which sounded like mortar bombs, appeared to be coming from the city’s volatile Doura district.

While bomb blasts are a regular occurrence in Baghdad, such a number in a short space of time is rare.

The blasts come as US soldiers leave their fortress-cities and establish small outposts in the capital’s most violent neighbourhoods in a major tactical shift under the two-week-old Baghdad security plan.

The Washington Post newspaper reported yesterday that the new policy, which calls for units to be placed full-time among the people they are trying to win over, was designed to uncover more battlefield intelligence and reinforce the message that US troops would not allow militants unfettered freedom of movement.

US soldiers had opened 15 of about 30 planned “joint security stations” in the capital. They have also set up an unspecified number of smaller “combat outposts”, the Post reported.

But the outposts posed new risks to US troop safety and required pulling soldiers off patrols to protect their lodgings.

“These little combat outposts, they are more exposed,” Staff Sergeant Marcel Weaver, 35, told the Post.

“Your routes in here are very limited, and they’re (insurgents) definitely watching us.” A grenade “attack is coming, I can guarantee that”.

The new Baghdad strategy coincided yesterday with confirmation that Iran and Syria have agreed to join US and British representatives to discuss the Iraqi security crisis at a regional conference in Baghdad on Saturday week.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said the Iranians had agreed to participate in a meeting with the other neighbours but that Iraq had “some questions” about a separate session that would be held the same day with the five permanent council members.

Mr Zebari said he would be issuing formal invitations shortly to the neighbouring countries and the five permanent UN Security Council members – the US, Britain, France, Russia and China – to send deputy foreign ministers or senior officials to the conference.

The Baghdad conference received a big boost on Wednesday when Washington said it would attend, leading to the possibility the US could discuss Iraq’s security with adversaries Syria and Iran. The Bush administration had waited to embrace the idea until Iraq made progress on an agreement governing national distribution of oil revenue, which was seen as an indication of the Government’s will to work across divides.

But the US’s new, more conciliatory approach is also causing concern among some key military advisers.

Britain’s The Guardian newspaper reported yesterday that a team of officers advising US commander General David Petraeus in Baghdad had concluded they had six months to win the war in Iraq or face a Vietnam-style collapse in support that could force the military into a hasty retreat.

The team of combat veterans, known as the “Baghdad brains trust” and including one Australian, is struggling to overcome a range of entrenched problems in what has become a race against time, according to a former senior administration official close to the team.

“They know they are operating under a clock,” he told The Guardian. “They know they are going to hear a lot more talk in Washington about … withdrawal. They know the next six-month period is their opportunity. And they say it’s getting harder every day.”

The team includes Colonel Peter Mansoor, a former armoured division commander with a PhD in the history of infantry; Colonel HR McMaster, author of a well-known critique of Vietnam and a seasoned counter-insurgency operations chief; Liutenant Colonel David Kilcullen, a seconded Australian officer and expert on Islamism; and Colonel Michael Meese, son of former US attorney-general Edwin Meese, who was a member of the Iraq Study Group.

The study group had recommended a regional forum and discussions with US arch-foes Iran and Syria.

The biggest long-term concern was that political will in Washington might collapse just as the military is on the point of making a counter-insurgency breakthrough, as happened in the final year of the Vietnam War.

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