BAGHDAD, (Reuters) – George W. Bush told Americans he would send over 20,000 more U.S. troops to halt Iraq’s collapse into civil war but many Iraqis — and the president’s opponents in Congress — were sceptical the increase could do much good. “To step back now would force a collapse of the Iraqi government, tear that country apart and result in mass killings on an unimaginable scale,” Bush said in a televised address, responding to calls for him to start a gradual withdrawal.
As voters questioned the value of adding to the 3,000 U.S. troops killed in Iraq, Bush said the Iraqi government must keep promises to rein in militants on all sides to retain his backing — restating a condition some analysts see as pre-emptively shifting responsibility for any future failure to end bloodshed.
“America’s commitment is not open-ended,” said Bush, whose own term, indelibly marked by the Iraq war, ends in two years. “If the Iraqi government does not follow through on its promises it will lose the support of the American people,” he said, making a rare acknowledgment of past errors. “The year ahead will demand more patience, sacrifice and resolve.”
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has vowed to lead the new Baghdad security operation and indicated it will strike not only insurgents from Saddam Hussein’s once dominant Sunni minority but also militias loyal to fellow Shi’ites — a key demand of Washington and Sunnis, who say Iran is backing Shi’ite gunmen.
Responses to the latest plan highlighted sectarian divides, with Sunnis hoping for the best and many Shi’ites increasingly resentful of the presence of the Americans who overthrew Saddam.
Bush renewed complaints about the role of Syria and Shi’ite Iran in Iraq and U.S. troops raided an Iranian consular office in the Iraqi Kurdish city of Arbil overnight, arresting five Iranians in the second such operation in the past month.
In Sadr City, the Baghdad slum bastion of the Mehdi Army militia led by Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, residents said U.S. and Iraqi troops staged an overnight raid on militants.
Such raids are not uncommon but Sunni leaders complain — as U.S. commanders have done — that not enough effort was made last year to strike Shi’ite groups blamed for some of the death squad killings. Police found 60 bodies around the city on Wednesday alone, and many thousands have fled their homes.
Bush’s Democratic opponents, now controlling Congress, vowed to resist but are unlikely to block a four-month phased increase of 21,500 troops that would push the U.S. force, now at 127,000 according to the military in Iraq, back to its level four months ago when its previous push to secure Baghdad was failing. “We are in a hole in Iraq and the president says that the way out is to dig deeper. Does that make sense?” said Senator Barbara Mikulski, a Democrat. “Bush is a prisoner of his own dreams,” a leading clerical official for Iraqi Sunnis said. “The American president is ignoring the dangerous political reality in Iraq,” Mohammad Bashar al-Fhaidi told Al-Arabiya television, saying Shi’ite leaders were pursuing a sectarian course to shut out the Sunnis. “Those ruling today have taken the path of exclusion.”
Bush himself stressed the need for national reconciliation.
Critics have questioned Maliki’s resolve after eight months in power to crack down on militias nominally loyal to his own allies and on militants entrenched in the Iraqi police and army.
U.S. commanders say that, unlike last summer’s operation in Baghdad, their troops will stay in areas “cleared” of militants to ensure Iraqi forces do not harm civilians or let gunmen come back. They say this time they hope Maliki provides enough Iraqi forces and that U.S. training of those units will improve them.
Sunni Arabs in Baghdad, the heart of resistance to the U.S. invasion four years ago, now look to the Americans to protect them from perceived domination by Iranian-backed Shi’ites: “If they withdraw it will not be good for Iraq,” said Abu Ahmed, a 60-year-old Baghdad man stuck in the morning rush hour. “I will welcome the new strategy if it brings security.”
But in Sadr City, Shi’ites enjoying their demographic power after decades of oppression under Saddam, have grown suspicious of the U.S. forces that overthrew him: “A real security plan would be the withdrawal of U.S. forces. We have our own police and army, why bring forces from outside?” Hassan Harbi said.
The parliamentary leader of Sadr’s political movement, Nasser al-Rubaie, told Reuters: “Sending more troops to Iraq is wrong and against the will of both the Iraqis and Americans. “It is a dictatorial decision,” he said, denying the Mehdi Army was an illegal militia. “If Iraqis were planning and implementing (this plan), we could control the security situation but if this goes on as before, with Americans planning and implementing it, it will turn out the same as in the past.” “The government has promised us a lot but nothing has changed,” said another commuter, Ali Abdul Razzak. “The Americans will just come and sit in one place and do nothing.”