Deployment of extra US troops hit by row with Iraqi PM

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The Independent Online

The United States' attempts to control spiralling sectarian violence in Baghdad ran into immediate problems yesterday, as Iraq's Prime Minister sharply criticised American tactics and made a televised apology to the Iraqi people.

The row marked the first day of an operation to deploy thousands of US reinforcements in the city of seven million people which has been carved into sectarian strongholds where it is lethal for members of rival communities to set foot.

The Iraqi premier, Nouri al-Maliki, responded angrily to a US-led attack in the Sadr City area of Baghdad, the stronghold of the radical Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The raid left three people dead, including one child, and sparked fears of a violent response from the cleric's powerful Mehdi army militia.

In a television broadcast, Mr Maliki said he was "very angered and pained" by the operation, warning that it could undermine his efforts toward national reconciliation. He went on to apologise to the Iraqi people for the operation, and said: "This won't happen again."

For its part, the US military said it had backed up Iraqi forces in the Sadr City raid in order to detain "individuals involved in punishment and torture cell activities". Analysts were warning last night that the war in Lebanon could spark a backlash against US and British troops from Iraq's Shia community.

Zalmay Khalilzad, Washington's ambassador to Iraq, said that US operations were aimed at ending sectarian bloodletting: "Meetings have taken place between forces of armed militias to reach an agreement to have assigned pledges for ending sectarian attacks on each other."

But there is no sign of a slowdown in the killing, which is claiming as many as 100 lives every day in Baghdad alone. A series of bombings and shootings killed at least 31 people across Iraq yesterday.

Four roadside bomb attacks killed at least 19 people in Baghdad yesterday, taking the two-day death toll past 50. The deadliest bombing killed at least 10 people and wounded 69 in the al-Shorja market in central Baghdad. Earlier, two blasts targeting police and another aimed at one of Baghdad's busiest bus stations killed nine people. Eight people were wounded in those attacks.

Aside from showing he can take control of the country, Mr Maliki is also faced with the task of proving he can take a tough stand on the abuse of Iraqis at the hands of US troops.

Last night a US military court was deciding whether four soldiers should be court-martialled for the rape and murder of an Iraqi girl and her family in Mahmoudiya, a village south of Baghdad, in March. It heard how troops were "driven nuts" by combat stress.

Pte Justin Cross described how conditions "pretty much crushed the platoon", which lived in constant fear of being killed.

He said: "It drives you nuts. You feel like every step you might get blown up. You just hit a point where you're like, 'If I die today, I die.' You're just walking a death walk."

Yesterday, Pte Cross testified that soldiers often drank Iraqi whiskey and took painkillers to relieve the stress of not knowing whether the day would be their last. He said that the unit was "full of despair", and he himself felt he would die at a checkpoint before he could go home.

"I couldn't sleep, mainly for fear we would be attacked," Pte Cross said. He said that the loss of two soldiers shot at a checkpoint " pretty much crushed the platoon".

Pte Cross testified that Specialist James Barker, who obtained the Iraqi whiskey, drank the most. He said he knew Pte Steven Green was also taking painkillers even though he never saw him. "Everybody was very depressed. It was [an] outlet to release," Pte Cross said.

The hearing continues.

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