Bombings and mortar attacks killed dozens across Baghdad on Monday as Iraqi troops set up new checkpoints and an Iraqi general took command — indications that the much-awaited operation to restore peace to the capital is gearing up nearly a month after it was announced.
With little sign of an end to the carnage, many Iraqis have begun complaining that the security drive has been too slow in starting, allowing extremists free rein to launch spectacular attacks that have killed nearly 1,000 in the past week.
Monday’s death toll supported their frustration. At least 74 people were killed or found dead across the country — all but seven of them in Baghdad.
Iraqi politicians — Shiite and Sunni alike — urged the government to speed up implementation of the plan, which President Bush announced Jan. 11. The operation would put thousands of U.S. and Iraqi troops on the street to protect civilians against sectarian bombers and death squads.
In a sign that the crackdown is near, Iraqi troops manned a major new checkpoint Monday at the northern gate to Baghdad, searching cars and trucks heading to and from Sunni insurgent areas to the north. Soldiers and police said the checkpoint was set up as part of the security plan.
Elsewhere, Rahim al-Daraji, a senior official in Sadr City, said police were already moving into the capital’s sprawling Shiite slum, stronghold of the notorious Mahdi Army militia.
And Lt. Gen. Abboud Gambar, who will direct the operation, took charge of his still-unfinished command center Monday in a former Saddam Hussein palace located inside the American-controlled Green Zone.
Gambar, who was taken prisoner by U.S. troops in the 1991 Gulf War, will have two Iraqi deputies, one on each side of the Tigris River, which flows through the center of the capital. The city will be divided into nine districts, each with as many as 600 U.S. soldiers to back up Iraqi troops who will take the lead in the security drive.
In announcing the plan, Bush said he was sending 21,500 additional American troops mostly to Baghdad in what is widely seen as a last chance to quell the sectarian violence ravaging the capital and surrounding regions.
About 3,000 paratroopers from the 2nd Brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division arrived in Iraq in late January and were expected to begin operations in the coming days. But the last of the U.S. reinforcements are not due until May.
With so much at stake, U.S. commanders have moved methodically to plan the operation and assemble the force, eager to avoid the mistakes that accompanied two failed crackdowns last year.
The U.S. military considers the operation to have been under way ever since Bush signed the order last month to start moving troops to Iraq. U.S. officers offered assurances that once the operation gets rolling, Iraqis will begin to see a difference.
“It’s going to be much more than this city has ever seen and it’s going to be a rolling surge,” Col. Douglass Heckman, the senior adviser to the 9th Iraqi Army Division, said of the operation.
Monday’s slaughter killed 15 people in back-to-back car bombings at a gasoline station in Sadiyah, a mostly Sunni neighborhood of southwestern Baghdad, police said. Eight people were killed when a bomb exploded in a garbage can in a Sunni enclave in central Baghdad, according to police.
Four mortar shells exploded about sundown in a Shiite part of Dora, killing seven people, police said.
2 American fatalities
The U.S. military reported the deaths of two American soldiers, both killed on Sunday north of Baghdad.
With violence roiling the capital, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has come under strong pressure from fellow Shiite politicians to speed up the operation because most of the recent victims of Baghdad attacks have been Shiites.
They were joined in their appeal by Iraq’s Sunni vice president, Tariq al-Hashimi, who said the government needs to move fast “because people cannot tolerate ... this sort of chaos and the killing around the clock.”
“I am very much interested in fact to speed up the implementation of this plan in fact,” al-Hashimi told the British Broadcasting Corp. Two of his brothers and one sister were assassinated last year in separate unsolved murders.
U.S. officials believe the previous crackdowns faltered because the Iraqis were unable to bring enough of their own troops to the capital. Some units in southern Iraq refused orders to move to Baghdad.
This time, the Iraqis have promised up to 8,000 new troops, including well-trained Kurdish units from the north.
While Iraqi units have been arriving on schedule, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said last week they were at only 55 to 65 percent strength and that “probably isn’t good enough.”
“There is no specified time for starting the security plan, but preparations and deployment of the forces including the checkpoints inside and surrounding Baghdad has begun,” Deputy Prime Minister Salam al-Zobaie told Al-Jazeera television.
High hopes for crackdown
Al-Zobaie, a Sunni, said the government had great hopes for the success of the security plan although the Iraqi military contribution would be “less than expected.”
Public anger, especially among Shiites, has welled up since a huge truck bomb Saturday devastated the Sadriyah market in a mostly Shiite part of central Baghdad, killing 137 people. It was the fifth major bombing in less than a month against Shiite targets in Baghdad and southern Iraq.
Such attacks have discredited Iraqi security forces at a time when the government is urging people to put their trust in the army and police — rather than sectarian militias.
Under American pressure, Shiite politicians persuaded radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to pull his Mahdi militiamen off the streets to avoid a confrontation with the Americans.
But many Shiites complain that the move effectively handed the streets to Sunni extremists before U.S. and Iraqi forces were ready to assume control.
“This delay in the implementation of the security plan is not good and has had negative consequences for Iraqis,” said Falah Hassan, a spokesman for al-Sadr’s movement. “We demand that the plan be executed as soon as possible because the terrorists are going too far in their vicious attacks.”
In Washington, Bush said he understood that the Iraqis are eager to see improvements in security.
“We’d like to do it as quickly as possible,” he said. “The success of that plan is going to depend upon the capacity and willingness of the Iraqis to do hard work. We want to help them do that work.”