BAGHDAD – Key U.S. and Iraqi officials on Wednesday issued cautiously optimistic reports one month into the latest drive to curb sectarian bloodshed in Baghdad but warned that months would pass before the operation could be labeled a success.
Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell, the U.S. military spokesman, also said the level of sectarian killings had dropped significantly in the month since the operation began.
"By the indicators that the government of Iraq has, it has been extremely positive. But I would caution everybody about patience, about diligence. This is going to take many months, not weeks, but the indicators are all very positive right now," Caldwell said.
One possible reason for the lowered violence in the capital could be the continued absence of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who remained in Iran "as of 24 hours ago," Caldwell said. The anti-American chief of the Mahdi Army militia was reported to have taken refuge in the neighboring Shiite theocracy before the security operation.
"He's a very significant part of this political process. We do continue to track his whereabouts," Caldwell said at a briefing to mark the end of the first month of the security drive.
Al-Sadr's militia was seen as responsible for much of the sectarian bloodshed, especially the executions and murders of as many as 50 people a day before the security operation began.
Al-Sadr's Mahdi Army fighters melted away and have not confronted U.S. forces as American and Iraqi troops launched the third crackdown on sectarian violence in the capital in less than a year.
There was great concern the operation would force an all-out showdown with al-Sadr's forces in their Sadr City stronghold in eastern Baghdad, but that has not materialized.
While Caldwell's assessment was largely positive, he expressed concern about a spike last week in the number of what he called "high-profile" car bombings.
"If the high-profile car bombs can be stopped or brought down to a much lower level, we'll just see an incredible difference in the city overall. Murders and executions have come down by over 50 percent. ... But the high-profile car bombs is the one we're really focused on because that's what will start that whole cycle of violence again," he said.
The commander of the Baghdad security plan, Lt. Gen. Abboud Qanbar, warned that all terrorists and outlaws "will be smashed with the foot of the Iraqi people" unless they reconsider their "position and return to logic before it's too late."
Qanbar also sought to reassure the capital's residents that the military is not discriminating in the crackdown, despite complaints by Sunnis that their neighborhoods have been unfairly targeted by the Shiite-dominated government.
He said the effort had made headway.
"We've overcome the terrorist acts, militant groups, criminal gangs, sectarian killings and displacement," he said at a press conference in the heavily fortified Green Zone.
The U.S. military also has stepped up its presence and plans to have about 20,000 extra American troops sent to Baghdad and surrounding areas by the end of May.
Suicide bombers struck a market in northern Iraq and an Iraqi military checkpoint in Baghdad, killing at least 10 people.
In the worst attack, a man detonated his explosives belt in an outdoor market in Tuz Khormato, 130 miles north of Baghdad.
The blast occurred just before noon as the market was crowded with shoppers in the city, which has a mixed population with a slight majority of ethnic Turks. At least eight people were killed and 25 were wounded, police said.
Northern Iraq has seen a recent rise in violence that many blame on insurgents fleeing the Baghdad security crackdown.
"What is the guilt of the people who came to sell or buy fruit and vegetables?" said Shawan Saleh, a Kurd who owns a restaurant near the market and rushed to the site. "There were no military or policemen in the market. It was only innocent civilians. The insurgents want to kill as many as they can. They want to ease the pressure on their fellows in Baghdad."
In western Baghdad, meanwhile, a suicide car bomber slammed into an Iraqi army checkpoint in the Sunni neighborhood of Yarmouk, killing two civilians and wounding four, police said.
In a reminder of the persistent Sunni resentment fueling much of the violence, the bodies of Saddam Hussein's sons and a grandson were exhumed and reburied near the ousted leader's grave in Ouja, his hometown north of Baghdad. Saddam was hanged on Dec. 30 and buried the next day in a grave chipped out of an interior floor of a building he had built for religious events.
Tribal officials said they decided to move the remains of Saddam's sons Odai, 39, and Qusai, 37, and his 14-year-old grandson Mustafa — who died July 22, 2003, in a gunbattle with U.S. troops in the northern city of Mosul — to keep all members of the family in one place.
Tribal chief Ali al-Nida and three other relatives accompanied the bodies as they were transferred Tuesday in three cars from the cemetery about a mile from the building in which Saddam is buried.
The three bodies were buried in the courtyard near the graves of Saddam's half brother and former intelligence chief Barzan Ibrahim, and Awad Hamed al-Bandar, former head of Iraq's Revolutionary Court, who also were sent to the gallows in January for the killings of 148 Shiites in the town of Dujail in 1982.
The five graves were covered with Iraqi flags as people prayed next to them during the service in Ouja, near the scene of Saddam's capture by U.S. soldiers in December 2003.
A U.S. Marine was killed Tuesday during combat operations in the western province of Anbar, the U.S. military said.
In other violence, police said:
• A municipal council chief and three other people were shot to death as they were driving in the Sunni neighborhood of Azamiyah in Baghdad.
• Gunmen attacked a Sunni mosque in Iskandariyah, 30 miles south of Baghdad. The mosque, which was severely damaged, was empty and there were no casualties.
• The head of the Red Crescent Society branch in Tikrit, Jassim al-Jubouri, was abducted by gunmen Monday night.