Iraq launches Baghdad sweep, Maliki offers talk to rebels

-File photo

Clashes erupted between gunmen and Iraqi troops and a car bomb killed two people on Wednesday as the government launched a security clampdown to root out al Qaeda militants in Baghdad.
Gunmen carrying automatic rifles blocked roads with stones and tree trunks and exchanged fire with Iraqi soldiers in Adhamiya, a Reuters reporter at the scene said.
Civilians fled the area but there were no immediate reports of casualties. Five Iraqi army tanks moved through Adhamiya and clashes later subsided.
In northern Baghdad, a car bomb targeting a police patrol killed two people and wounded seven. A Reuters photographer who was 10 metres (yards) from the blast saw a man and a teenager burning amid the wreckage after the bomb caused a big fireball.
On Tuesday US President George W. Bush told new Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki during a surprise visit to Baghdad that the fate and future of Iraq was “in your hands.”
Addressing a televised news conference as the crackdown got under way, Maliki insisted he was ready to talk to insurgents who do not have Iraqi blood on their hands.
“The door is open for dialogue with gunmen who oppose the political process and now want to go back to political activity under pledges,” said Maliki.
Iraqi officials said operation “Forward Together” would involve more than 40,000 Iraqi and US-led forces in a sweep to corner al Qaeda in Iraq following the killing of its leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi last week in a US air strike.
Similar operations in the past have failed to stem bloodshed that has killed thousands and pushed Iraq towards civil war.
Bush, whose popularity has slumped because of the war that has killed nearly 2,500 US troops, told Maliki during his visit that it was time the Iraqi government developed a plan to improve security.
“The decisions you and your cabinet make will determine as to whether or not your country succeeds, can govern itself, can defend itself, can sustain itself,” Bush told Maliki, whose self-styled government of national unity took office last month.
With a population of seven million, Baghdad has been the scene of daily carnage and kidnappings.
Maliki, who last week overcame wrangling among Shia and Sunni coalition partners to fill the Interior and Defence posts, is under pressure to deliver on promises to reduce the violence.
He told the news conference the operation was also aimed at restoring security in Baghdad so that families displaced by violence could return. Tens of thousands of Iraqis have fled their homes fearing religious or ethnic hatred.
Despite growing domestic discontent, Bush has resisted setting a timetable for the withdrawal of 130,000 US troops, saying this depends on the capability of Iraqi forces.
Reuters reporters saw new army checkpoints backed by armoured vehicles in Baghdad’s western Mansour district and an Iraqi tank in religiously mixed Amiriya, where insurgents and US and Iraqi forces have often clashed.
American forces kept a low profile.
As Bush met Iraqi leaders in Baghdad, al Qaeda’s new leader in Iraq, Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, said in a statement posted on the Internet that “the day of vengeance” was near.
The death of Zarqawi and the appointment of a Sunni as defence minister, have opened a narrow window of opportunity to ease communal hatreds, analysts said.

Copyright Reuters, 2006