By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 25, 2008
BAGHDAD, April 24 -- Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said Thursday that the return of a Sunni political bloc that walked away from the government last year is imminent. The announcement followed a military campaign against Shiite militias that has buoyed Sunni politicians.
"The reconciliation has proved a success," Maliki said in a statement. "The state's weapons became the only weapon."
The anticipated return of the main Sunni political bloc, the Iraqi Accordance Front, is welcome news for Iraq's Shiite-led government, which has faced repeated questions about its willingness to share power. The bloc has submitted names of potential cabinet ministers to the government for consideration.
The crackdown on militias, which started in the southern city of Basra last month, has led to fierce clashes between government forces and Shiite fighters in Basra and eastern Baghdad.
Clashes in eastern Baghdad continued overnight Wednesday and Thursday. U.S. helicopters fired at least five missiles, killing at least six suspected militiamen, the military said. Also Thursday, in the Rashidiyah area north of Baghdad, U.S. soldiers who came under small-arms fire killed four people the military described as Iranian-trained criminals.
Iraqi lawmakers, concerned about the fighting's toll on residents of several eastern Baghdad neighborhoods, including the huge Shiite district of Sadr City, agreed to form a committee to step up humanitarian aid.
"Innocent people are dying," said Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, a Sunni Arab lawmaker who serves as parliament speaker. "It's a humanitarian issue, it is not a political issue. So let's solve this matter now."
The International Committee of the Red Cross said this week that the fighting has increased food prices and overwhelmed hospitals in Sadr City. Al-Jamila market, among the largest in Sadr City, was destroyed as a result of the fighting, the group said.
The organization said the clashes have complicated delivery of water, food and medical supplies for the vast slum's three main hospitals. Sadr City is home to between 2 million and 3 million people.
Clashes in Sadr City that followed the start of the offensive in Basra left hundreds of people dead, according to the U.N. Assistance Mission for Iraq and Iraqi lawmakers. During the 21 days after the clashes began, about 600 people were killed in Baghdad, about one-third of them in Sadr City, according to U.N. statistics. During the 21 days before the raids, 300 people were killed in the capital, the agency said.
Nasar al-Rubaie, a member of parliament who heads the political bloc loyal to anti-American Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, said Thursday night that 356 people have been killed in Sadr City, a stronghold of the cleric's militia, since the clashes began. He said he was urging Maliki to ease the offensives in eastern Baghdad. The Sadrist bloc also pulled out of the government last year.
U.S. military officials say the dozens of airstrikes launched in eastern Baghdad in recent weeks have sharply reduced the number of rockets fired into the Green Zone, where U.S. military and Iraqi government operations are headquartered.
Also on Thursday, the U.S. military said two U.S. soldiers were killed Wednesday when their vehicle rolled over in Salahuddin province.
The military, meanwhile, has agreed with an Iraqi government determination that Iraqi security forces will need to grow overall to between 600,000 and 646,000 by 2010 to field a force "capable of protecting the country against internal threats and insurgency," according to an interim report released Thursday by Stuart W. Bowen Jr., special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction.
That would require as many as 76,000 recruits beyond the 570,000 currently authorized in the Iraqi police, army and special operations. This does not include a second generation of forces needed to protect Iraq from external threats, Bowen added.
The new report also reflects changing numbers in the Iraqi police forces, managed by the Interior Ministry.
The number of police officers trained as of Jan. 1 was 155,250, or 20,000 less than previously reported, because some trainees had been double-counted. The number of officers recruited, put on the payroll and assigned to duty is 275,300.
Iraqi police training facilities cannot handle that number and the situation is expected to get worse, Bowen said, because U.S. officials are pushing the Iraqi government also to take on 19,000 Sons of Iraq -- the locally recruited and largely Sunni security forces supported by the United States.
The U.S. military also said the number of Iraqi soldiers present for duty as of this month was 70 percent of those assigned, above the "half to two-thirds" noted in Bowen's report.
Special correspondents Naseer Nouri and Zaid Sabah in Baghdad and staff writer Walter Pincus in Washington contributed to this report.