Iraqi PM announces crackdown on militias, gunmen

By Alastair Macdonald
Reuters
Saturday, January 6, 2007; 4:13 PM

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq's prime minister promised on Saturday a new crackdown on sectarian gunmen who kill hundreds of people a week in Baghdad, but has yet to endorse any proposal from President George W. Bush to send in more American troops.

In a pugnacious speech for Army Day, Nuri al-Maliki said a plan was in place for Iraqi forces to crush illegal armed groups "regardless of sect or politics" -- suggesting he may be ready to tackle militias loyal to his fellow Shi'ites, a key demand of Washington and of Saddam Hussein's once dominant Sunni minority.

His announcement, along with a defiant response to critics of his decision to hang Saddam a week ago, comes as Bush conducts a major reshuffle of commanders and diplomats in Iraq and prepares to unveil a new strategy next week that officials say may include a proposal to add 20,000 U.S. troops in Baghdad.

A U.S. television report said Defense Secretary Robert Gates had recommended a buildup of 10,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, with an option of doubling that to 20,000 by spring. The Pentagon and the White House declined to comment on the report.

One of Maliki's Dawa party allies, member of parliament Ali al-Adeeb, said the crackdown would start "soon," though no date was set. He added that Maliki was still considering Bush's idea for more U.S. troops, made in a telephone call on Thursday.

U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and General George Casey, both of whom Bush is set to replace, said in a joint statement that U.S. forces were ready to help Maliki in "securing Baghdad."

Bush's Democratic opponents, who took control of Congress last week, question the need to increase troop numbers. More than 3,000 Americans have died in Iraq since the 2003 invasion and many voters favor a rapid withdrawal as U.S. forces find themselves increasingly caught in the sectarian crossfire.

Adeeb said U.S. troops already in Iraq could simply be switched to Baghdad, as happened in a major crackdown by U.S. and Iraqi forces last summer which briefly reduced the killing rate before appearing to run out of steam. A U.S. military spokesman declined to comment on "future operations."

Home to more than one Iraqi in four and with a rich mix of communities, Baghdad has seen heavy bloodshed and an ethnic cleansing of populations over the past year. Many analysts say stopping the rot quickly is vital to prevent all-out civil war for control of the oil-rich state.

"There will be no refuge from this plan for anyone who is operating beyond the law, regardless of their sect or their political affiliation," Maliki told Iraqi soldiers gathered on a vast Baghdad parade ground built by Saddam in the 1980s.

"We will come down hard on anyone who does not carry out their orders and who does their job according to his political or sectarian background," he added, underlining concern over the loyalties of 300,000 new, U.S.-trained Iraqi troops and police.

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