Thursday, March 8, 2007

U.S.: Iraqi insurgent attacks intensifying; US general calls for talks with militants

U.S.: Iraqi insurgent attacks intensifying
12.45pm update

US general calls for talks with militants

· Force 'not sufficient' to end Iraq violence
· 2,200 US military police to join crackdown
· 'Surge' should last until 2008, says commander

Mark Tran and agencies
Thursday March 8, 2007
Guardian Unlimited

General David Petraeus gives his first press conference since taking over command of US forces in Iraq
General David Petraeus gives his first press conference since taking over command of US forces in Iraq. Photograph: Chris Hondros/Getty Images

The US commander in Iraq today said military force alone was "not sufficient" to end the violence and political talks must eventually include some militant groups now opposing the US-backed government.

The announcement came as the Pentagon announced the deployment of an extra 2,200 US military police to Iraq to help deal with an anticipated increase in detainees during the latest US-led security crackdown, and the US day-to-day commander in Iraq was reported to have recommended current troop levels are maintained into 2008.

General David Petraeus, a counter-insurgency expert, was picked by Mr Bush in a last attempt to tackle the sectarian violence in Baghdad which is threatening to rip the country apart. US policy in Iraq is at present the deployment of 21,500 more troops to help the Shia-led government of Nuri al-Maliki.

A parallel increase in military police was requested by Gen Petraeus, but at his first news conference in Baghdad since taking charge of American forces last month, he said it was political negotiations with militants that "will determine in the long run the success of this effort".

He said he saw no immediate need for more US combat troops other than those already announced, but a report in the New York Times said his day-to-day commander, Lieutenant-General Raymond Odierno, had made the confidential assessment that heightened troop levels be maintained until February 2008.

Gen Odierno's view reflects the counter-insurgency doctrine favoured by Gen Petraeus of leaving troops in areas they enter rather than withdrawing and letting insurgents return.

Gen Petraeus today said Baghdad had seen encouraging signs of progress despite "sensational attacks", pointing to a fall in sectarian killings and fewer people leaving their homes in recent weeks in the capital.

But nine US soldiers were killed in two separate roadside bombings this week in spite of a security crackdown now in its fourth week.

And the increase in US forces has not prevented a spate of attacks in the past three days on Shia pilgrims making their way to the holy city of Kerbala. At least 150 have been killed, including more than 100 outside the capital. It was "too early to discern significant trends, [but] there have been a few encouraging signs", Gen Petraeus told reporters.

The attacks - mostly blamed on Sunni insurgents - are seen as attempts to provoke a civil war with Shia militia.

Gen Petraeus said it was "critical" for leaders to halt any drift toward sectarian conflict and added that US forces were ready to help provide additional security for the pilgrims if asked by Iraqi authorities.

But he saw no role for the Shia militia known as the Mahdi Army, whose fighters guarded pilgrims in the past two years.

He said "extremist elements" in the militia had been engaged in "true excesses" in the past - a reference to suspected gangs killing Sunnis.

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