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U.S. commanders in Iraq remain cautious despite drop in violence

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Violence is down throughout the capital and Mahdi Army militiamen have all but vanished from the streets one month into a stepped-up security plan. But U.S. and Iraqi officials warned that it would take months to gauge the crackdown's effectiveness.

Even before most of an expected 17,500 U.S. military reinforcements have arrived in Baghdad—part of a "surge" of troops to Iraq that will number more than 25,000—statistics released by the Iraqi government Wednesday show decreases in nearly every category of violence, from sectarian-motivated assassinations to common crimes such as car theft.

One glaring contrast to the decline is the number of detainees, which has skyrocketed, with more than 1,000 suspects detained since the plan was introduced Feb. 15.

"We've overcome the terrorist acts, militant groups, criminal gangs, sectarian killings and displacement," Lt. Gen. Abboud Qanbar, Iraqi commander of the Baghdad security plan, said at a news conference in Baghdad.

U.S. military officials were more cautious. They noted that while overall violence is down, there'd been "a very slight uptick" in insurgent activity in recent days.

American officers had predicted that violence would drop as the plan went into effect, but have cautioned that the drop could be temporary and that attacks might move from Baghdad to outlying areas as the plan was implemented.

On Wednesday, a suicide bomber killed 10 people and wounded 15 at a busy market just outside the northern city of Kirkuk, police said. In Iskandariyah, 30 miles south of Baghdad, gunmen attacked and severely damaged a Sunni mosque, but it was empty at the time and no casualties were reported.

In the mostly Sunni neighborhood of Yarmouk in western Baghdad, a suicide car bomber rammed into an Iraqi army checkpoint, killing two civilians and wounding four, police said. In the capital's southwest Saidiyah district, a homemade bomb killed two civilians and wounded four.

This week, the U.S. military moved more than 700 troops from Baghdad north to insurgent-ridden Diyala province. Three soldiers died Wednesday and nine were injured in separate incidents in Diyala, according to a U.S. military statement. Two of the soldiers died in explosions; the third was killed by small-arms fire.

The military also announced that a U.S. Marine had been killed Tuesday "while conducting combat operations" in western Anbar province.

Judging from the Iraqi government's statistics from Feb. 15 to present, the security plan has shown early promise, compared to the previous month. The number of car bombings dropped from 56 to 36, while rocket and mortar attacks fell by nearly half. The total number of Iraqi civilians killed in the violence decreased sharply from 1,440 to 265.

A McClatchy Newspapers tally of the violence compiled from media reports and security sources found only slight variations from the government's numbers.

"If the high-profile car bombs can be stopped or brought down to a much lower level, we'll just see an incredible difference in the city overall," said Maj. Gen. William Caldwell, the senior U.S. military spokesman. "Murders and executions have come down by over 50 percent. ... But the high-profile car bombs is the one we're really focused on because that's what will start that whole cycle of violence again."

Perhaps the most striking figure was the decline in the execution-style abductions and killings usually attributed to Shiite Muslim militiamen from the Mahdi Army of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The number of assassinations fell from 519 in the month prior to the plan to 22 since the plan's kickoff.

Before the plan was in place, more than 50 corpses a day regularly turned up in Baghdad streets, often showing signs of torture. On Wednesday, 16 bodies were found.

The drop in sectarian attacks is widely attributed to the Mahdi Army leadership's abrupt disappearance from its headquarters in the vast Shiite slum of Sadr City and other posts throughout the eastern, predominantly Shiite side of the capital. Just two months ago, the militia roamed freely in the capital, manning checkpoints and abducting Sunnis en masse.

Instead of encountering a fierce fighting force, joint U.S.-Iraqi patrols have found little or no resistance as they extend the security plan to Sadr City, home to nearly 3 million mostly impoverished Shiites.

Residents in Sadr City and along the route from Baghdad to Iraq's southern Shiite provinces said Mahdi Army militants were still in place, but have stashed their weapons and adopted a lower profile, perhaps to wait out the initial phases of the crackdown.

Al-Sadr himself was still in neighboring Iran "as of 24 hours ago," Caldwell said. The militia commander is reported to have left Iraq just ahead of the increased security measures.

"He's a very significant part of this political process," Caldwell said. "We do continue to track his whereabouts."

Omar Abdul Sattar, an Iraqi legislator and senior member of the Iraqi Islamic Party, one of the leading Sunni factions, said Sunni officials were pleased that the plan has squeezed "those who participated in sectarian killings" and has reduced the number of unidentified bodies dumped in Baghdad.

Still, Abdul Sattar emphasized, it's far too early to deem the plan a success.

"It's positive and negative at the same time. What's the guarantee they won't come back to Baghdad?" he asked. "For now, the Mahdi Army is bending before the storm."


A roundup of violence in Iraq is posted daily at Click on Iraq war coverage.


(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.