BAGHDAD, Iraq – Iraq's prime minister said Saturday that Iraqi forces would launch a new effort — with U.S. troops in a supporting role — to wrest control of Baghdad's neighborhoods from militias and other sectarian killers.
A firefight in a Sunni neighborhood of central Baghdad between Iraqi army forces and militants apparently marked the start of the drive to contain Sunni insurgents and Shiite death squads. According to a state television report, 30 militants were killed and eight arrested — including five Sudanese — in the insurgent-held neighborhood that housed Iraqi government and military officials during Saddam Hussein's rule.
"The Baghdad security plan will not offer a safe shelter for outlaws regardless of their ethnic and political affiliations, and we will punish anyone who hesitates to implement orders because of his ethnic and political background," Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said earlier in the day in a speech at the 85th anniversary celebration of the Iraqi army.
Hours before the firefight was reported, police said they had found 27 bodies in same area, along Sunni-dominated Haifa Street about two miles north of the heavily fortified Green Zone, site of the U.S. and British embassies, the Iraqi government and thousands of American troops.
Police called for the Iraqi army to help remove the bodies because it was too dangerous for the lightly armed police force.
The bodies found in the Haifa Street neighborhood were among 71 found in Baghdad, with nine more found outside the capital. Most of the victims showed signs of torture.
Elsewhere in the capital and nationwide Saturday, police said at least 17 other people were reported killed dead as a result of sectarian violence. In one incident, eight members of a senior Shiite police official's family were murdered while he was away from home at work.
President Bush and al-Maliki spoke for nearly two hours Thursday by video conference, and Bush was also expected to detail his vision of a new strategy to help secure Iraq in the coming days.
Maj. Gen. William Caldwell, a U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, said this past week that any new effort to stabilize Baghdad would likely involve traditional, large-scale U.S. operations as well as nighttime raids by smaller, more mobile forces.
On Saturday, al-Maliki asked residents of the Iraqi capital for patience during the new security operation.
"We are full aware that implementing the plan will lead to some harassment to all of beloved Baghdad's residents, but we are confident that they fully understand the brutal terrorist attacks Iraq faces," the prime minister said.
Al-Maliki is uneasy about the possible introduction of more U.S. troops, aides said, and he has repeatedly refused U.S. demands to crush the militia of anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, one of the prime minister's most powerful backers.
Sami al-Askari, an al-Maliki political adviser, told The Associated Press on Friday that al-Maliki had not acquiesced to a reported White House plan to send as many as 9,000 more U.S. troops to Baghdad alone.
Bush reportedly wants to increase troop strength as part of his developing plan to shake-up the U.S. military effort in Iraq, now in its fourth year.
Without a substantial U.S. troop increase there were obvious questions about success of any new drive to curb violence.
Last summer the U.S. military and Iraqi army flooded the capital with 12,000 additional troops to the same purpose. By October, the U.S. military spokesman said the operation had not met expectations and the situation was disheartening. The last half of 2006 was one of the most violent periods in the center and west of the country since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
Any serious effort to curb the chaos and violence in the capital would put not only American forces but al-Maliki's Iraqi army in direct confrontation with al-Sadr's Mahdi Army.
The militants are gaining more and more ground as they kill Sunni residents and drive others from their neighborhoods in an explosion of vengeance that began after the Feb. 22 bombing by Al Qaeda in Iraq militants of the Golden Dome mosque, an important Shiite shrine in Samarra, north of the capital.
Also Saturday, al-Maliki continued to defend his government's execution of Saddam, amid speculations that the former leader's execution chamber was infiltrated by militiamen who taunted Saddam in his final moments of life.
"The execution of the tyrant was not a political decision, as the enemies of the Iraqi people say. The verdict was implemented after a fair and transparent trial, which the dictator never deserved," al-Maliki said.
He also accused other governments, without naming them, of meddling in Iraqi affairs with their criticism of Saddam's hanging.
"We consider the execution of the dictator an internal issue, and we reject and condemn all acts of some governments," al-Maliki said.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has condemned the conduct of Saddam's execution and its timing at the start of a Muslim religious festival.
"Nobody will ever forget the circumstances and the manner in which Saddam was executed," Mubarak told the Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot in an interview Thursday. "They have made him into a martyr, while the problems within Iraq remain."