BAGHDAD – Iraq's Shiite prime minister, hoping to persuade Iraqis outside the capital that the government is working to tame rising violence everywhere, traveled to the Sunni insurgent stronghold of Ramadi on Tuesday and met with tribal leaders and the provincial governor.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's visit came a day after he warned that extremists would flee to other parts of the country during a security crackdown in Baghdad and promised government help in fighting them.
Surrounded by heavily armed bodyguards, al-Maliki also visited Iraqi security forces after he was flown to the U.S. base on the western outskirts of Ramadi, the provincial capital of the volatile Anbar province, which stretches west from Baghdad to the borders with Jordan, Syria and Saudi Arabia.
He discussed security issues and the need to restore infrastructure in the battered city during the meeting with Gov. Maamoun Sami Rashid al-Alwani, according to Iraqi state television.
The U.S. military is pressing a campaign to encourage Iraq's Sunnis — those involved in or sympathetic to the insurgency — to stop attacks and break with Al Qaeda in Iraq fighters who have taken deep root in Anbar province.
Four Anbar governors have served in less than four years. One was assassinated, another resigned after surviving an attack and two, including the current one, have had sons kidnapped. Recently, local tribal leaders who have met with U.S. commanders have been killed.
Al-Alwani operates under tight U.S. security at a government center in central Ramadi, which has been a favorite target of insurgents and is heavily guarded by U.S. troops.
Al-Maliki's visit came a day after a suicide car bomber detonated explosives near an Iraqi checkpoint in Ramadi, killing himself and wounding 15 people, mostly civilians, the U.S. military said. More casualties were prevented because Iraqi troops opened fire and disabled the vehicle before it reached the checkpoint, the military said.
The prime minister said Monday that extremists would flee to the hinterlands during the Baghdad security sweep.
"Some of these gangs fled to the provinces and have become active recently, targeting innocent people and committing random murders," al-Maliki said Monday. "So the role of security services in the provinces is very important. The government is ready to offer the necessary help. We are beginning to confront terrorism, and we must continue to do so."
Meanwhile, more than 700 additional U.S. troops arrived in Iraq's increasingly volatile Diyala province to try to quell violence northeast of Baghdad.
The move comes at a time when more than 20,000 new American troops are pouring into Baghdad as part of a U.S.-Iraqi push to pacify the capital.
While sectarian killings in Baghdad have fallen since the crackdown began last month, violence has skyrocketed to the northeast in Diyala, where direct attacks on U.S. forces have risen 70 percent since last summer, according to U.S. military figures.
"We began looking at this several months ago, in support of the Baghdad plan. We knew the surrounding provinces would be in play," Maj. Gen. Benjamin Mixon, commander of the Army's 25th Infantry Division and the top U.S. official in northern Iraq, told The Associated Press.
"I recognized for sure that Diyala would become more violent as operations picked up in Baghdad," Mixon said.
The additional American forces join more than 20,000 Iraqi security forces in Diyala, according to figures provided by the U.S. military. About half of those are Iraqi police, and half are members of the Iraqi 5th Army Division.
"This should be fun, but three months and it's over," said Sgt. Todd Selge, 22, of Burnsville, Minn., whose unit is slated to leave Iraq in late spring. "We've heard that a lot of insurgents have moved here from Baghdad. The Iraqi Army is supposed to be OK here, so we're coming to help them stand up."
The security crackdown in Baghdad already has seen a decline in execution-style killings, random shootings and rocket attacks, in large part because Shiite parties have been successful in persuading the Shiite militias to pull armed fighters off the streets to avoid a showdown with the Americans.
Police found only nine bullet-riddled bodies in Baghdad on Monday — apparent victims of Sunni-Shiite reprisal killings. Before the security crackdown, the daily count was running above 50.
On Tuesday, a roadside bomb hit a minibus carrying Industry Ministry employees in northern Baghdad, killing two workers and wounding six.
And in Suwayrah, 25 miles south of Baghdad, police dragged two bodies out of Tigris River, a morgue official said in Kut. The bodies showed signs of torture.
Also in Kut, gunmen killed an interpreter working for coalition troops. Police said Ibrahim Sasa was killed in the center of the provincial capital.