BAGHDAD, (Reuters) – The U.S. military reported the deaths of four more soldiers as new Defense Secretary Robert Gates wrapped up a two-day visit on Friday aimed at finding a new strategy in a war he has said America is not winning.
The four U.S. servicemen were killed in action on Thursday in the restive Anbar province, heartland of the unrelenting Sunni insurgency against U.S. forces and the Iraqi government and the most dangerous place in Iraq for American soldiers.
The deaths brought the total U.S. death toll in Iraq to 2,959, creeping closer to the 3,000 mark and adding more pressure on U.S. President George W. Bush to find a strategy that will allow the eventual withdrawal of 135,000 U.S. troops.
Bush has said he will announce a new strategy in January after listening to the advice of his military commanders, State Department officials, Iraqi leaders and Gates, who said he would report back to the president this weekend.
Gates said whatever strategy was decided, the Shi’ite-led Iraqi government must take the lead in curbing sectarian violence between minority Sunnis and majority Shi’ites that has killed thousands of Iraqis, many in the Iraqi capital. “The situation in Baghdad is obviously difficult. Clearly success will only be achieved by a joint effort with Iraqis taking the lead,” he told reporters.
Gates said Iraqi leaders had concrete plans to reduce violence in Baghdad and target militias, who are blamed for fuelling the tit-for-tat violence, but implementation details still needed to be worked out. “They do have some concrete plans in mind, and putting flesh on those bones is exactly what General Casey and his team and the Iraqis will be doing in the days ahead,” he said, referring to the U.S. commander in Iraq, General George Casey.
Critics of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki have accused him of doing little to rein in the militias, which are tied to parties within his ruling Shi’ite alliance, despite making repeated promises since taking office to act against them.
The Pentagon said this week that the Mehdi Army militia of Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr had overtaken Sunni Islamist al Qaeda as the greatest threat to Iraq’s stability. Sadr’s supporters say it is a “peaceful army” for self-defence only and does not launch revenge attacks against Sunni Arabs.
Revenge was on the minds of angry residents of Haditha northwest of Baghdad on Friday. They demanded the execution of four U.S. Marines charged on Thursday over the killing of 24 unarmed civilians there in November 2005.
Khaled Salman, whose sister Asmaa was among the 24 killed, gathered with friends in the early hours of Friday to watch news coverage of the charges being announced. “Those soldiers killed 24 people. They killed women and children, isn’t that enough for them be executed? Just so that the family can have peace,” said Salman, 41.
It was midnight in Iraq when the U.S. military announced it had charged four Marines with murder and four others with dereliction of duty over the killings.
Iraqi witnesses say enraged Marines shot the civilians in their homes to retaliate for the death of a popular comrade who was ripped in half by a bomb that hit a convoy in the town.
Defence lawyers dispute the Iraqi witnesses’ version of events and say the marines were engaged in a furious battle in Haditha after the bomb exploded and the civilians may have been killed during the chaos.