(photo credit: AP)
In the opening battle of a major new drive to tame the violent capital, the Iraqi army reported it killed 30 militants in a fire fight in a Sunni insurgent stronghold in the center of the city, just to the north of the heavily fortified Green Zone.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, speaking only hours earlier on Saturday, at a ceremony marking the 85th anniversary of the Iraqi army, announced his intention for the relentless and open-ended bid to crush militant fighters bedeviling Baghdad.
Hassan al-Suneid, a key aid and member of al-Maliki's Dawa Party, said the Iraqi leader had committed 20,000 soldiers to the operation that would call upon American troops and airpower only when needed.
A stern al-Maliki told the nation the operation in Baghdad would continue "until all goals are achieved and security is ensured for all citizens.
"We are fully aware that implementing the plan will lead to some harassment for all beloved Baghdad residents, but we are confident they fully understand the brutal terrorist assault we all face."
State television said eight militants, including five Sudanese fighters, were captured in the battle near Haifa Street, a Sunni insurgent stronghold on the west bank of the Tigris, where police reported finding the bodies of 27 torture victims dumped earlier in the day.
Al-Suneid, who is also a member of parliament, said the new drive to free Baghdad from the grip of sectarian violence would focus initially on Sunni insurgent strongholds in western Baghdad.
Sunnis were likely to cry foul, given that a large measure of today's violence in Baghdad is the work of Shiite militias, loyal to al-Maliki's key political backer, Muqtada al-Sadr.
An Iraqi army general said commanders of the force would operate independently, a sharp break with Iraqi military tradition of heavy central control, and would be held individually responsible for failed operations.
Any armed person in the streets faced automatic detention, he said, and would be shot if offering resistance, said the general on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the information.
Al-Suneid and al-Maliki insisted that this drive to contain militants, as opposed to a largely ineffective joint operation with the Americans in the second half of last year, would succeed because it would be solely in the hands of Iraqi commanders who have been promised American backup and airpower if they call for it.
But US political and military officials - in a message of congratulation on Army Day - tempered Iraqi claims that they were acting in full independence.
"As stated by the prime minister today, MNF-I (US forces) will provide appropriate assistance as determined by Iraqi and coalition (American) field commanders, for the implementation of the new plan for securing Baghdad and its surrounding environs," said the statement from US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and overall American commander Gen. George W. Casey.
Al-Suneid said US President George W. Bush signed off on the plan when he and al-Maliki spoke by video conference for nearly two hours on Thursday. The two leaders began formulating the operation during a November summit in Amman, Jordan.
Bush was widely reported to be planning to send at least 9,000 additional American forces to the capital from outside Iraq as part of his long-awaited strategy revisions in the fourth year of a war in which more than 3,000 American troops and tens of thousands of Iraqi's have died.
Last summer the US military and Iraqi army flooded the capital with 12,000 additional troops, but by October, the US 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 US-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein. The US death toll in the capital spiked with the presence of extra American troops on the street during Operation Together Forward II, which has been supplanted by the new Iraqi-dominated drive to cleanse the capital of militant fighters.
In last year's joint drive to eradicated militants, the Iraqi army failed to send much of the promised troop-strength, making it impossible to secure neighborhoods after they were cleared of insurgent and militia fighters by American forces.
The Iraqi army general said Iraqi forces, while nominally operating independently, would rely heavily on American support, both ground forces and airpower.
It was believed politically very important to both al-Maliki and Bush to put an Iraqi face on the new operation in Baghdad. Bush hopes to prove that the Iraqi military and security forces are capable of controlling violence by the end of the year, opening the way for an American withdrawal.
Al-Maliki, whose political survival depends heavily on al-Sadr, the radical anti-American cleric, is eager to show his independence of American occupation forces. He wants the Americans to quickly turn over security control to Iraqi forces and withdraw to the outskirts of Baghdad and other cities, where they would be out of sight but could be called to action in times of need.
Military commanders said operations against the al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia in its Sadr City stronghold would be left largely to a joint force made up of US soldiers and the Iraqi Special Operations Command division under Brig. Gen. Fadhil Birwari, a Kurd. Soldiers in the division are a mixture of Kurds and Arabs from both the Sunni and Shiite sects.
Al-Maliki advisers said the prime minister, who repeatedly has rejected US demands to move against the Mahdi Army, blamed his refusal on pressure from former Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, head of the Dawa Party.
Violence surged in Iraq Saturday after a week of relative quiet. Police reported 97 people were killed or found dead, 80 of them assassination victims dumped in Mosul, Baghdad and south of the capital.