BAGHDAD, (Reuters) – All U.S. troop reinforcements heading to Iraq to help restore security have now arrived, but it could take several more months before their weight is fully felt, the U.S. military said on Friday.
The United States has sent around 28,000 extra troops to Iraq for a fresh security push launched in mid-February aimed at curbing sectarian killing and winning the government of Shi’ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki time for political reform. “Everyone is here on the ground now. But obviously, the troops that have just got here are going to take some time to integrate into their battle space and get to know their counterparts,” U.S. military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Christopher Garver said.
It will take 30 to 60 days for the new arrivals, who have taken total U.S. troop levels in Iraq to 160,000, to win the confidence of residents and start getting the intelligence needed to counter insurgent and militant attacks, Garver said. That means troops might not be operating at full capacity until August. The top U.S. military commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, and the U.S. ambassador, Ryan Crocker, are due to report on the success of the security build-up in September.
U.S. President George W. Bush is under growing pressure from Congress to begin pulling out troops and end the unpopular war, which has killed more than 3,500 U.S. soldiers since the U.S-led invasion to oust Saddam Hussein in 2003.
The U.S. military said four soldiers were killed on Thursday, three when their vehicle was hit by an explosion in northern Kirkuk province. The fourth who was shot dead in Diyala province north of Baghdad. There have been 42 U.S. troop deaths so far this month, down sharply from the 126 killed in May.
Garver said the relatively low intensity of reprisals since an attack by suspected al-Qaeda militants on a revered Shi’ite shrine in Samarra on Wednesday could be a sign the presence of more U.S. forces on the streets of Baghdad was already helping.
Hundreds died in sectarian retaliation in the first days after militants blew up Samarra’s Golden Mosque in February 2006 and tens of thousands have died since in the bloodshed it provoked. The mosque’s minarets were blown up on Wednesday.
Prompt calls for restraint from Iraq’s political leaders and Shi’ite clerics, including from the firebrand leader Moqtada al-Sadr, have helped contain retaliatory strikes so far to scattered attacks against Sunni mosques. “I have been struck over the last day by the very serious and measured way – not only the Iraqi government but senior political and clerical figures — have dealt with this,” U.S. envoy Crocker, said on Thursday.
The largest Sunni mosque in the Basra region in southern Iraq was blown up and destroyed early on Friday morning, a senior security officer said. “All members in charge of security at the mosque have been arrested,” said Major General Ali Hamadi, head of the provincial Basra emergency security committee. But there were no casualties in the attack on the Talha mosque in Al Zubair, a town around 15 km (nine miles) southwest of Basra city, in keeping with the pattern since Wednesday of reprisals against property, not people.
Garver also attributed the low level of retaliatory attacks to a three-day curfew in Baghdad that ends on Saturday and the fact that the Iraqi police and army were doing a better job. “We have much more capable Iraqi security forces out on the streets now than a year and a half ago and we also have more coalition troops on the ground than at that time,” he said.
U.S. and Iraqi troops have set up joint security stations and combat outposts in Baghdad neighbourhoods to boost their visibility, restrict the movement of death squads and bombers.
The operation initially seemed to be working and the victims of Sunni and Shi’ite violence declined in March and April. But the number of sectarian killings climbed again last month, while U.S. military casualties have also jumped and Washington is braced for more. “We expect that the fight for security will get harder over the coming months as we engage an increasingly desperate enemy,” U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte told reporters at the briefing with Crocker.
Negroponte was ending a three-day visit to Iraq to press Maliki for more progress on reforms aimed at reconciliation, including a long-awaited law to share oil revenues.