BAGHDAD — The U.S. surge of troops to Iraq was completed when an Army brigade officially took its position in an area south of Baghdad on Friday, the U.S. military announced.
The declaration that the 2nd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division was in place and operational ended a four-month buildup that has seen 28,500 additional U.S. troops deploy to Iraq. So far, the additional troops have done little to tamp down violence, but U.S. officials expressed optimism Friday that that trend will change.
"This is the first time we'll be able to do the entire strategy as it was designed," U.S. military spokesman Lt. Col. Chris Garver said. "This is still a months-long process to get us to where we see the levels of violence really coming down."
The new brigade will need 30 to 60 days before they're comfortable in their "battle space," Garver said.
A Defense Department report released this week showed that violence increased across Iraq while it declined in Baghdad during the first three months of the surge.
"We had anticipated that," Garver said. "When you put pressure in the center, the violence has to find somewhere to go."
The arrival of the U.S. troops came as Iraq's government extended until Sunday the all-day curfew that had been imposed Wednesday after bombers destroyed the minarets at the Shiite Askariya shrine in Samarra. Fifteen months ago, an explosion destroyed the shrine's gold dome and fueled an orgy of sectarian killing that claimed thousands of lives.
Officials said extending the curfew was intended to prevent Shiite Muslims angry about the new attack on the shrine from taking revenge. "Tensions are still high," said Ali al Dabbagh, the Iraq government spokesman.
The streets were quiet Friday and violence in Baghdad was low, with only one unidentified body found in the capital.
The U.S. military announced that more than 650 Iraqi security forces and a coalition advisory team had arrived in Samarra to help protect the shrine's rubble. About 300 were Iraqi soldiers; 140 police were also on hand.
Iraqi television stations broadcast sermons from Friday's prayer service, including one from an unidentified Sunni imam who blamed the American presence for sectarian tension and kidnappings. Iraqi television said the name of the imam and the location of his mosque were being kept secret for security reasons.
The imam said that since the first attack on the Shiite shrine on Feb. 22, 2006, the Sunnis have seen nothing but killings and kidnappings. Since the Wednesday attack, he claimed that 17 Sunni mosques were been overtaken or set ablaze.
"The blood of innocent is shed every day," he said. "The Samarra shrine exploded more than a year ago, and Sunnis still suffer from mosque burnings, and imams are being killed."
There was little new information about the Wednesday explosion, which took place while the shrine was being protected by Iraqi army and police.
The unnamed Sunni cleric noted that the shrine was being protected by Ministry of Interior commandoes, an organization known to be heavily infiltrated by Shiite militias.
But the interior ministry and officials in Samarra's security forces said that the mosque was under the protection of Sunni guards appointed by a Sunni religious committee.
A Shiite cleric and member of parliament told a prayer service in Baghdad that the two minarets toppled on Wednesday had nothing to do with the destroyed Shiite shrine, but were used to summon Sunni worshipers to prayer.
"When they attacked Samarra, they didn't target the shrine. It is already destroyed. They targeted the minarets, which spread the Sunni call for prayer," said Jalaldin al Saghir.
Like his unnamed Sunni counterpart, Saghir blamed the government for not protecting the shrine.