Iraq Leader Asks Militias To Take A Break

A U.S soldier from the Delta 112 Cav. Battalion walks past a man as they do a house to house search near the city of Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad on Friday, Aug. 31, 2007. AP Photo/Karel Prinsloo

The Iraqi government called on armed groups to follow the lead of the biggest Shiite militia and freeze their operations, even as the U.S. military Friday reported the deaths of two more American service members in fighting against Sunni insurgents.

A statement by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's office welcomed Wednesday's decision by anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to freeze attacks by his Mahdi militia for up to six months as a step toward "affirming security and stability."

The statement, issued late Thursday, said al-Sadr's move offered "a good chance" to "suspend the work of other militias" to restore "the integrity and sovereignty of Iraq."

Al-Sadr issued the order after his fighters were suspected of a role in this week's gunfights during a religious festival in Karbala that killed up to 51 people.

The two U.S. service members - a Marine and an Army soldier - were killed Wednesday in fighting in Anbar province, the Sunni Arab stronghold west of Baghdad, the military said.

That brings the total U.S. troop deaths in Iraq to at least 79 this month, one more than the July total, which was the lowest monthly figure this year.

The U.S. statement gave no further details.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Defense Department has defended its efforts to rid the Iraqi national police of sectarian bias and corruption, even as an independent review found the force too tainted to continue.

In a meeting with the top military leaders in a secure Pentagon conference room dubbed "the Tank," President Bush was expected to hear deep concerns Friday from leaders of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines about strains that are building on the force - and on troops' families - as a result of lengthy and repeated tours in Iraq.

Two independent assessments of the situation in Iraq already have been previewed this week - the latest finding that Iraq's national police are so corrupt and influenced by sectarianism that the corps should be scrapped and replaced with a smaller force.

An independent commission established by Congress to study Iraq's security forces will recommend starting over and reshaping the troubled 25,000-member police organization with a more elite force, a defense official said Friday. He said the report was more positive about progress being made by the Iraqi army.

The report from a commission headed by the former commander of U.S. troops in Europe, retired Gen. James Jones, is to be presented to Congress next week but Gates and other officials were briefed about it this week, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the report has not been publicly released.

Asked the Pentagon's view on this, press secretary Geoff Morrell said there already is a program under way to fix the problem of sectarian influence in the national police. He said he had not seen the Jones report.

"It should come as no surprise to anyone that there have been problems with sectarianism within the Iraqi national police force, and we have been working on it along with the Iraqi government for some time to fix that problem," Morrell said.

In other developments:

  • The leader of a squad of Marines that killed 24 Iraqis in Haditha told two soldiers a week before the assault if they were ever hit by a roadside bomb they should kill everyone in the area, a former squad member testified Friday.

  • America's troop surge in Iraq has sharply reduced sectarian killings and roadside bombings and lowered al Qaeda's influence, the top U.S. general in the country said in an interview published Friday. "We say we have achieved progress, and we are obviously going to do everything we can to build on that progress and we believe al Qaeda is off balance at the very least," The Australian newspaper quoted Gen. David Petraeus as saying.

  • A military cargo plane carrying three senators and a House member was forced to take evasive maneuvers and dispatch flares Thursday to avoid ground fire after taking off from Baghdad.

  • U.S. government auditors are about to tell Congress that Iraqi leaders have failed to meet at least 13 of 18 benchmarks laid out to assess the effectiveness of President Bush's war strategy, a report the White House dismisses as "not news."

  • The military said Marines from the 5th Regimental Combat Team killed 12 suspected al Qaeda in Iraq fighters and destroyed two vehicles in fighting Wednesday near the Anbar city of Fallujah. Marine AV-8B Harrier jets dropped two precision-guided bombs, and Marines also called in artillery strikes against the insurgents during the battle, the military said. "Numerous weapons and roadside bomb making materials were also found," the U.S. statement said.

  • Elsewhere in Anbar, U.S. and Iraqi forces raided houses in the Euphrates River town of Haqlaniyah, and closed bridges linking the town with Haditha. Alhurra television reported that four al Qaeda fighters and two Sunni tribesmen opposed to the terror movement were killed in gunfights Friday in Haqlaniyah. U.S. officials have reported a dramatic drop in violence in Anbar after numerous Sunni Arab community leaders broke with al Qaeda in Iraq last year. Some members of other insurgent groups have joined forces with the U.S. to hunt down al Qaeda members.

    The apparent turnaround in Anbar is expected to figure prominently in September reports to Congress, where prominent Democrats and Republicans have called for a drawdown in U.S. forces here.

    The reports, including one by Petraeus, are expected to point to some limited success in curbing violence but little progress toward political power-sharing agreements among Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds.

    On Friday, al-Maliki said political leaders were close to finalizing a draft law providing for provincial elections, one of the 18 benchmarks set down by the U.S. Congress.

    At a news conference Thursday, Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari insisted that Iraq has been making some headway in resolving political differences, despite defections by the main Sunni Arab bloc and a hard-line Shiite faction.

    "The whole world is waiting anxiously to see what this report will indicate," Zebari said. "I personally believe that this report would not provide any magical solutions or provide any instant answers to the difficulties and challenges we are going through."
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