Iraqi authorities launch major security crackdown in Baghdad

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The Independent Online

Iraqi troops were out in force and cars were backed up at checkpoints today in Baghdad as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki launched a major security crackdown aimed at ending the violence that has devastated the capital.

Tens of thousands of Iraq police and soldiers were deployed throughout the capital of six million people, searching cars and securing roads into and out of Baghdad.

Despite the stepped up security measures, a parked car bomb struck the northern district of Qahira this morning, killing at least four civilians and wounding six, police Lt. Ali Mitaab said.

The crackdown, which army officials said was dubbed Operation Forward Together, began a day after US President George W Bush paid a surprise visit to Baghdad, promising continued US support for Iraqis but cautioning them that "the future of the country is in your hands."

Iraqis encountered more checkpoints and soldiers as they drove to work this morning, causing traffic to back up in some areas, although noticeably fewer cars were circulating elsewhere.

Al-Maliki called on Iraqis to be patient with the security measures and promised Iraqi forces would respect human rights and would not single out any ethnic or sectarian group.

"We are only going to attack areas that are dens for terrorists," he said during a news conference to formally unveil the plan in Baghdad.

Maj. Gen. Mahdi al-Gharrawi, the commander of public order forces under the Interior Ministry, said his forces had not encountered any resistance, even in some of the capital's most volatile areas.

"The people are feeling comfortable with the security measures and they are waving to us," al-Gharrawi said. "Until now, no clashes have erupted and no bullets have been fired at us."

Osama Ahmed Salah, a 50-year-old Sunni university professor in western Baghdad, said he hoped authorities would not randomly target the minority sect.

"The security plan operations should not depend on false information and they should not be sectarian or directed against a specific kind of people," he said. "The operations should be well-prepared and they should not be conducted in a way that humiliates citizens."

Security officials said yesterday that 75,000 Iraqi and multinational forces would be deployed throughout Baghdad, securing roads in and out of the city, establishing more checkpoints, launching raids against insurgent hideouts and calling in airstrikes if necessary.

Al-Maliki has also announced plans for an extended curfew and a weapons ban, saying he would show "no mercy" to terrorists a week after al-Qaida in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed in a US airstrike northeast of Baghdad.

The government did not say how long the crackdown would last and declined to give precise numbers about checkpoints and troops today, citing security concerns.

But al-Garrawi said Tuesday that the operation was the biggest of its kind in Baghdad since the US handed over sovereignty to Iraq in June 2004.

Bush's visit, meanwhile, prompted a noisy protest in Baghdad by hundreds of followers of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The demonstrators raised Iraqi flags and pictures of al-Sadr while chanting "Iraq is for Iraqis" and "No, to the occupation."