Monday, February 05, 2007

New Baghdad Offensive Set To Begin

I've been telling everyone on my show that something big was going to happen in early 2007. Most of the intel has been pretty quiet until recently. This isn't really a surprise, but there will be some surprises for everyone beyond this new offensive.

By Dean Yates

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - A U.S.-Iraqi campaign to stabilize Baghdad will begin soon and the offensive against militants will be on a scale never seen during four years of war, American officers said on Sunday.

Briefing a small group of foreign reporters, three American colonels who are senior advisers to the Iraqi army and police in Baghdad said a command center overseeing the crackdown would be activated on Monday.

"The expectation is the plan will be implemented soon thereafter," Colonel Doug Heckman, senior adviser to the 9th Iraqi Army division, said at a U.S. military base in Baghdad.

"It's going to be an operation unlike anything this city has seen. It's a multiple order magnitude of difference, not just a 30 percent, I mean a couple hundred percent," he added, referring to previous offensives that failed to stem bloodshed.

The plan will involve U.S. and Iraqi forces sweeping the capital's neighborhoods for militants and illegal weapons and then holding cleared areas. But some analysts fear that as in previous crackdowns, militants will simply melt away and wait them out, or strike in areas where they are not deployed.

All three officers sought to talk up the ability of Iraq's forces to perform better than in previous crackdowns.

Their comments came a day after a suicide truck bomb killed 135 people in a mainly Shi'ite area of Baghdad, the single biggest bombing since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

The joint offensive is seen as a last-ditch effort to halt all-out civil war between minority Sunni Arabs and politically dominant majority Shi'ites.

President Bush is sending 21,500 reinforcements, most earmarked for the Baghdad offensive.

Critics of Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki say an offensive last summer failed because the Iraqi army committed too few troops and because he was reluctant to confront the Mehdi Army of radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

The firebrand cleric is a key political ally of Maliki.


Asked if the Mehdi Army's stronghold in Sadr City would be cleaned out, Heckman acknowledged the political sensitivity but said all options were open.

"If we feel we need to clear Sadr City to bring stability, we will do that. Are there restrictions that will not allow us to do that? Right now there are not," Heckman said.

Maliki has vowed the crackdown will tackle militants across the sectarian divide. The Pentagon has said the Mehdi Army poses a greater threat to peace in Iraq than Sunni Islamist al-Qaeda.

The Baghdad command center that will begin operations on Monday will be headed by an Iraqi general. However, U.S. troops will not take orders from Iraqi officers.

Colonel Chip Lewis, senior adviser to a national police division in Baghdad, said the Iraqi security forces were more confident than they were before the last offensive. At that time, some Iraqi units did not show up.

Heckman said the offensive would gradually build up.

There was anecdotal evidence some militias had sought to melt away ahead of the campaign, the officers added.

"The end of the summer is when we should see some concrete results and be able to say is this working or not," Heckman said. That would be around September.

One problem that bedeviled last summer's offensive was the reluctance of Iraqi soldiers in the regionally recruited army to be deployed in the capital, far from their homes and families.

This time soldiers will get pay bonuses to come to Baghdad and will be given a finite tour of duty, so they know their deployment will not be open-ended, the American officers said.

Another difference would be the establishment of what the officers called joint security stations, which will be set up in nine Baghdad districts and where Iraqi and American troops will live and patrol side-by-side.


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