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Saturday, August 12, 2006

Forces to target 4 'hotspots' in Baghdad

BAGHDAD, Iraq - The new push by U.S. and Iraqi forces to reverse a rising tide of violence in Baghdad will target four violent "hotspots" in the city, the American general in charge of the plan said Saturday.

Those parts of the city have experienced frequent kidnappings, suicide bombings and revenge killings by Shiites and Sunnis.

Maj. Gen. James Thurman, commander of the Army's 4th Infantry Division, said the renewed push for stability began Aug. 7 in the Dora area of southwestern Baghdad, a notoriously violent part of the city. He said sweeps of Dora neighborhoods had captured 179 people thus far and killed 25 "terrorists."

The other three targeted districts are Mansour and the Ghazaliyah-Shula areas of western Baghdad and the Azamiyah area in the northeast, he said, adding that the goal is to quell the violence and restore ordinary Iraqis' confidence in their government's ability to provide security and basic services.

"I'm confident, based on what I'm seeing right now, that we've got a positive trend here happening," Thurman said in an interview after joining Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in a question-and-answer session with several dozen soldiers, sailors and airmen at Camp Liberty.

"We've got four major hotspots where we've had a lot of sectarian killings," Thurman said. "And we've got a plan that will zero in on reducing the number of murders, kidnappings, assassinations and car bombs."

Pace, who arrived Saturday from Washington, met with Thurman and other senior American commanders and addressed the troops at Camp Liberty to thank them for their service.

A few of the soldiers in his audience were with the Alaska-based 172nd Stryker Brigade, whose one-year tour of duty in Iraq was extended by four months recently in order to add another 3,500 soldiers to Thurman's force in the capital. Thurman said he has received another 2,000 extra troops from other units.

Thurman said he now has 32,444 U.S. troops in Baghdad and areas south of the capital, as well as 32,554 Iraqi forces. Of the U.S. total, about 13,500 are in Baghdad proper, he said.

As recently as a month ago, U.S. officials thought they were going to be able to reduce U.S. troop levels this fall, but Thurman said the rise in strife between different religious groups "had us worried" and prompted him to ask his superiors for more combat power "so we could quell this and once and for all get rid of the people that are causing the problems here." Thus, the 172nd Stryker Brigade was moved into Baghdad from northern Iraq.

In his remarks to troops at Thurman's headquarters, Pace disclosed that the plan earlier this summer was to reduce the total number of U.S. combat brigades this fall to 12 from the 14 that were operating at the time. Instead a brigade that had been held in reserve in Kuwait was brought into Iraq and the 172nd was retained even as its replacement — a brigade of the 2nd Infantry Division — arrived.

Nonetheless, Pace told reporters traveling with him enroute to Baghdad that he would not rule out U.S. troop reductions this fall.

Pace stopped short of predicting that conditions would improve enough to allow a U.S. troop reduction before year's end, but he said he would be consulting with top commanders this weekend on the outlook for a turnaround in the violence among different religious groups and the need for U.S. troops.

"It's important to always have troop levels on the table" as a subject for discussion, he said. "We thought as recently as a month or so ago that we were going to be able to come down" in the numbers. "What changed was the increase in sectarian violence," he added.

Nonetheless, Pace said it was possible that the sect-on-sect violence could be tamped down quickly. "Their leaders simply could decide to stop it" by telling their people to stop killing each other, he said.

"There is still the potential to reduce the number of troops," he said, although he would not say how soon he thought this could happen. Earlier this year U.S. officials were hoping to reduce troop levels to 100,000 or less by December, with more significant cuts following in 2007.

The Joint Chiefs chairman, on only his second trip to Iraq this year, also said that Pentagon officials are beginning to think about who might replace Casey, who has been the top commander in Iraq since July 2004. Pace said Casey would stay for about another six months.

"Certainly you start thinking now" about who should succeed Casey, Pace said. He offered no names but praised Casey's performance, noting: "He will not be easily replaced."

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