BAGHDAD (AFP) -US reinforcements have rolled into some of the most violent districts of Baghdad in a fleet of 17-tonne armoured troop carriers as part of a major push to halt Iraq’s slide towards civil war.
Units of the 172nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team deployed in flashpoint districts in the west of the capital Sunday, which in recent weeks has seen hundreds of civilians murdered in attacks by sectarian death squads.
As they arrived, the blasts of two roadside bombs echoed around the city. One attack wounded two Iraqi police commandos and two civilians in the Jihad neighbourhood, an interior ministry official said.
An extra 3,700 combat troops will join Operation Forward Together in support of some 50,000 mainly Iraqi personnel battling to regain control of the capital and to restore the authority of the embattled coalition government.
“The Stryker Brigade continues to move, and its final positions are still being worked out,” said Major William Willhoite, a US military spokesman.
Last week, the US general in charge of Middle East operations warned that Baghdad’s descent into chaos could sabotage efforts to rebuild a stable Iraq, more than three years after the fall of former president Saddam Hussein.
“I believe the sectarian violence is probably as bad as I’ve seen it, in Baghdad in particular, and that, if not stopped, it is possible that Iraq could move toward civil war,” said General John Abizaid, head of US Central Command.
Abizaid was testifying before a Senate committee following a Pentagon decision to prolong the 172nd brigade’s tour of duty in Iraq, effectively freezing a plan to reduce US troop numbers dramatically by the end of the year.
The Stryker Brigade had already completed a 12-month deployment in the restive region around the northern city of Mosul, and had begun to head home to Alaska when the order came to proceed to Baghdad for the next 120 days.
The 172nd — nicknamed the “Arctic Wolves” — has handed over authority in Mosul to the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, a US statement said. The handover maintained US troop levels in Iraq at around 130,000.
The Arctic Wolves use the “Stryker”, a wheeled armoured car which can carry nine troops plus a crew. It is regarded as better suited than tracked vehicles to urban terrain, and safer than a Humvee utility vehicle.
General George Casey, the US commander in Iraq, said last week on a US military website that the Baghdad deployment was key to his strategy.
“These death squads are nothing but a terribly destructive element of society and, along with terrorists and other members of the insurgency, must be defeated and brought to justice,” he wrote.
“Baghdad is clearly central to this effort. Our strategy is to remain on the offence. In coordination with the prime minister and leaders within the Iraqi security forces, we are modifying our operational concept,” he added.
Two months ago, Iraq’s Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki announced a plan to restore security to Baghdad by deploying 43,000 Iraqi police and army and just over 7,000 US troops around Baghdad.
The plan has so far failed to contain the violence, however, as daily bombings target police posts and crowds of civilians, and faceless death squads kidnap, torture and shoot more than a dozen victims daily.
Some attacks are carried out by anti-government insurgents, some by militias loyal to one or other of the factions in the coalition, some by criminals, and some by sectarian extremists from the rival Sunni and Shiite communities.
Taken together, there are around 60 violent incidents a day in the city.
In the southern town of Nasiriyah, meanwhile, 58-year-old Jassem Aliyawi — a former member of Saddam’s Baath Party — was shot dead in front of his family by a lone gunman who stormed into his house, police said.
Nevertheless, a coalition spokesman said Iraqi forces in Nasiriyah were ready to take full charge of security in Dhi Qar Province, and a local official predicted they would replace an Italian presence there by the end of the month.