Iraq's government removed the top military and police commanders in Basra on Wednesday, weeks after a botched crackdown on militia fighters there triggered the country's worst fighting in months.
Iraqi army Lieutenant-General Mohan al-Furaiji and police Major-General Abdul-Jalil Khalaf were among the country's most senior commanders and were widely respected by U.S. and British military leaders.
Interior Ministry spokesman Major-General Abdul-Karim Khalaf, no relation to the Basra commander, said the two were recalled to senior staff positions in Baghdad as a "reward for their successful mission against the criminals in Basra."
Also Wednesday, the U.S. military said two Marines were killed by a roadside bomb in western Anbar province. The statement said the blast occurred on Sunday while their vehicle was under attack by enemy fighters.
The two deaths raise to at least 4,036 the number of U.S. military members who have died since the war started in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
The bloodshed came a day after nearly 60 people died in a series of bombings in four cities in northern and central Iraq that were blamed on al-Qaida in Iraq.
The bombings struck directly at U.S. claims that the Sunni insurgency is waning and being replaced by Shiite militia violence as a major threat.
Still, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki voiced optimism that his government would soon defeat al-Qaida in Iraq. "We are today more confident than any time before that we are close to the point where we can declare victory against al-Qaida ... and its allies," he said Wednesday in an address to the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium.
U.S. declines to comment
U.S. military spokesman Major-General Kevin Bergner said he had seen reports that the Basra commanders had been replaced but declined to comment further, saying: "The change in leadership is one that I would defer to the government of Iraq to further characterize."
The two commanders were dispatched to Basra last year and won enthusiastic praise from U.S. and British brass for battling militia and fighting infiltration of their forces. Both survived numerous assassination attempts.
But their fate was widely seen as sealed after the crackdown in March failed to dislodge militia fighters loyal to cleric Muqtada al-Sadr from the streets and triggered fighting that spread to other southern cities and Baghdad.
Last week Iraq fired 1,300 soldiers and police for failing to stand and fight during the crackdown. U.S. commander General David Petraeus told Congress the campaign's planning was "not satisfactory" and he had envisioned a more gradual operation.
The increase in violence and the crackdown's uncertain outcome have brought the war back to center stage in the U.S. presidential election at a time when Washington is preparing to withdraw 20,000 troops over the next four months.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki personally oversaw the crackdown, and U.S. commanders say they were given just days notice. British press reports have said Mohan was one of those who had urged a slower approach like that sought by Petraeus.
Despite the failings of the initial operation, U.S. commanders have described the overall crackdown in Basra as a success, not least because Iraqi forces took the lead and rapidly dispatched 6,600 extra troops to the area.
"In Basra the Iraqi army forces in particular are finding improved support from the local citizens in terms of tips, in terms of their cooperation," Bergner said.
Iraqi forces have continued raids on suspected militiamen in Basra since the main fighting there ended, and scored a victory in the town on Monday, freeing a kidnapped British journalist when they stormed the house where he was being held.
An unmanned U.S. drone fired two Hellfire missiles at militants attacking Iraqi soldiers in a Shiite militia stronghold in the southern city of Basra on Wednesday, killing four of the gunmen, the military said.
In Baghdad, clashes between U.S.-backed Iraqi troops and Shiite militiamen in the Sadr City district killed two men and injured 18 other people, police said Wednesday.
The airstrike in Basra occurred about 1 a.m. after militiamen attacked an Iraqi army patrol with rocket-propelled grenades on the eastern side of the Hayaniyah district, the U.S. military said. A vehicle suspected of containing more weapons and ammunition also was destroyed.
The area has seen some of the fiercest fighting since a government offensive against the militias in Basra began March 25.
In Sadr City, a police officer said those injured in gunbattles Tuesday included three women and three children. Sadr City is a stronghold of the Mahdi Army militia of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. It is also home to an estimated 2.5 million Shiites.
The officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said sporadic shooting was still going on and it was too dangerous to venture out on the streets.
The ferocity of the Shiite militia response to the government crackdown has surprised Iraqi security forces -- which are dominated by Shiites -- raising doubts about whether the Iraqis could handle an all-out war without U.S. help.
The New York Times reported that an 80-strong company of Iraqi soldiers abandoned their positions Tuesday night in Sadr City, leaving a crucial stretch of road undefended for hours despite pleas by American soldiers in the area for them to stay.
The Iraqi company leader, who was identified as Maj. Sattar, and his troops complained that they were short of ammunition and overall poorly equipped to battle the militias and had no means to communicate directly with the U.S. troops positioned behind them, according to the newspaper.
It added that an elite Iraqi unit was rushed in and began to fight its way north with the help of the Americans.
The report comes just days after the government fired most of the 1,300 soldiers and policemen who had deserted or refused to fight during its offensive against Shiite militants in Basra last month.
The U.S. military said the New York Times report was factual and the Baghdad command would address the issue.
Lt. Col. Steve Stover, a military spokesman in Baghdad, called it "a snapshot of one area where U.S. soldiers are in close support of their Iraqi counterparts" and stressed that it is a new army and Iraqi soldiers and national police are taking casualties daily in fighting in other areas.
"This is one company-sized unit, part of a recently formed Iraqi army battalion," Stover said, adding that 65 other Iraqi battalions were operating in Baghdad with "varying degrees of experience and capability."
"The older units are able to conduct independent counterinsurgency operations and others obviously need more work, better leadership and more experience," he said in an e-mailed statement.
In other violence Wednesday, a mortar shell slammed into a house in eastern Baghdad, killing at least three civilians and wounding three others, police said.
Gunmen also opened fire on a minibus near Muqdadiyah, 60 miles north of Baghdad, killing 2 women and wounding 3 men, police said.