Top U.S. generals warned Wednesday that violence will increase in Baghdad during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan and said al-Qaida in Iraq already has intensified its assaults against American troops.
The warnings came as violence killed some 65 people and wounded more than 100 in two days. At least 23 people died in bombings and shootings around the country Wednesday, and 10 bodies were found. The day’s deadliest attack took place in Samarra, where a suicide car bombing outside a Sunni tribal leader’s house killed 10 and wounded 38.
The military said a U.S. soldier was killed Wednesday by small-arms fire in northeastern Baghdad, and reported the death of another American in a roadside blast in the same area the day before. A third U.S. soldier died in the capital in “a non-combat incident,” the military said, without giving details.
“If you historically look at this time period just before and going into Ramadan, there has unfortunately been an increase in violence. That, in fact, is occurring within the city,” said U.S. Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell, the senior military spokesman in Iraq.
He said Iraqi and U.S. forces were carrying out operations against insurgents and terrorists to “disrupt their ability to coordinate violence prior to Ramadan.”
Attacks spike around Baghdad
Thousands of Iraqi and U.S. soldiers launched a security sweep around Baghdad on Aug. 7. The operation managed to lower violence in targeted areas of Baghdad, but attacks spiked in the rest of the city.
“Al-Qaida in Iraq, insurgents and death squads have recently increased their attacks” in the Baghdad area, Caldwell said.
“This past week, there was a spike in execution-style murders in Baghdad. Many bodies found had clear signs of being bound, tortured and executed. We believe death squads and other illegal armed groups are responsible.”
Caldwell said it was believed that the increase in al-Qaida attacks against American forces came after a threat issued Sept. 7 by Abu Ayyoub al-Masri, also known as Abu Hamza al-Muhajer, the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq. The U.S. military, which killed the group’s previous leader, has put a $5 million bounty on al-Masri’s head.
The commander of U.S. forces in Baghdad told The Associated Press that he has been ordered to try to control the violence ahead of Ramadan, which is expected to begin around Sept. 24.
“The thing that I was told to do, prior to the month of Ramadan, is dramatically reduce the number of mortars, kidnappings, assassinations and (car bombs) inside of Baghdad and predominantly try to reduce the sectarian violence,” Maj. Gen. James Thurman said.
Focus on sectarian militias
He said he was pushing Iraqi leaders to do more about sectarian militias responsible for killing thousands of people — most of them in the capital — and would also need more Iraqi troops.
“Militias are holding the rule of law in contempt. We’re pushing this government to get a policy as to how they’re going to deal with it so their own people know how to deal with the militias,” Thurman said. “I would like to see more Iraqi forces. We are pushing that very hard.”
Sunni Arabs have linked Shiite-dominated government ministries, including the Interior Ministry, to death squads. Both Sunni Arab and Shiite death squads roam the streets of Baghdad.
However, the U.S. general helping train Iraqi police said that so far none of the death squad members detained had ties to the Interior Ministry or other government agencies.
“From a general allegation that the Ministry of Interior is sponsoring death squads, it has not been borne out by those we have captured and detained to date,” Maj. Gen. Joseph Peterson said.
When asked which militias the death squad members seemed to have been recruited from, Peterson did not elaborate, except to say that “Jaish al-Mahdi is certainly one of them.”
He referred to the Mahdi Army, which is loyal to radical anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. There have been reports, however, that the militia has splintered recently — with some groups breaking away from al-Sadr.