U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates slipped into Basra, Iraq, early Friday – unannounced – to confer with U.S. and allied leaders, a day after a group of retired generals
in Washington slammed the Bush plan on Iraq, and hours after word of arrest of an aide to Iraq's top militia leader.
Britain, which has the largest troop contingent among the U.S. allies, with about 7,000 soldiers in the Basra area, is planning to withdraw a large portion of them this year.
Gates said at the outset of his weeklong overseas trip that he realized the security situation in southern Iraq is different than in Baghdad, where the U.S. is building up its troop strength.
Gates was meeting with Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, as well as Maj. Gen. Jonathan Shaw, the newly arrived commander of British forces here. Later Gates was to meet with commanders from Poland, Australia, Denmark and Romania, and have lunch with coalition troops who are training the Iraqi army.
On his first visit to Iraq after being sworn in on Dec. 18, Gates met in Baghdad with U.S. commanders and Iraqi government leaders just weeks before President Bush announced his new strategy for Iraq, which includes sending an additional 21,500 troops to Baghdad and the western Anbar region.
For security reasons, the visit of the Pentagon chief was not made public until after his arrival, which came hours after a report from the Iraqi capital of the arrest of a top aide to the most powerful militia leader in the country.
The U.S. military says only that special Iraqi army forces captured a high-level, illegal armed group leader during a raid in eastern Baghdad. The name of the detainee has yet to be made public.
But an official at the offices of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr – who leads the Mahdi Army as well as the political group which was instrumental in putting Nouri al-Maliki in power as prime minister - says Sheik Abdul-Hadi al-Darraji, al-Sadr's media director in Baghdad, was captured in the eastern neighborhood of Baladiyat.
The Mahdi Army has been in the spotlight since President Bush last week unveiled his latest plan on Iraq - centered on increasing U.S. troops with the aim of reducing ethnic violence in Iraq. A number of critics of the Bush plan pointed to al-Sadr and the Mahdi army as a weakness in that plan - since al-Sadr's support is a big part of what keeps the prime minister in power, and al-Sadr's militia has also been suspected of involvement in ethnic violence.
Thursday, apparently reacting to recent criticism that he would be reluctant to go after militia gunmen loyal to one of his key political backers, the Iraqi Prime Minister announced that 400 fighters from the Mahdi Army have been arrested over the past several weeks.
Thursday's announcement marks the first time the Shiite prime minister has specifically detailed any arrests of figures from the Mahdi Army militia.
Yassin Majid, a senior al-Maliki adviser, said reports that dozens of senior militia leaders were detained are incorrect.
In other recent developments: President Bush's plan to send more troops to Iraq came under withering attack Thursday from a panel of retired generals on Capitol Hill. "The proposed solution is to send more troops and it won't work," said one, former Marine Gen. Joseph Hoar, who once commanded all U.S. forces in the Mideast. "The addition of 21,000 troops is too little and too late." A Marine corporal pleaded guilty Thursday to murder, kidnapping and other charges stemming from the shooting death of an Iraqi man last year in the town of Hamdania, and told the court that his sergeant made sure the victim was dead by firing a burst of gunfire into the man's head. An Iraqi prosecutor announced Thursday that over 100 former members of Saddam Hussein's regime will stand trial this year in connection with the deaths of tens of thousands of Shiite Muslims during an uprising after the 1991 Gulf War. In Baghdad Thursday, bombers and gunmen killed at least 19 people in yet another series of attacks. Wednesday, gunmen in a predominantly Sunni neighborhood of Baghdad shot up a convoy of democracy workers in an ambush that took the lives of an American woman and three security contractors Wednesday, while a suicide car bomber killed 17 Shiites at a teeming Sadr City market. The Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera reported Thursday that al-Maliki was deeply critical of President Bush during a briefing with a small group of reporters. "The situation would be much better if the United States had immediately sent our security forces more adequate weapons and equipment. If they had committed themselves more and with greater speed, we would have had a lot fewer deaths among Iraqi civilians and American soldiers." Al-Maliki stopped short of openly criticizing Mr. Bush's plan to send 21,500 more troops, saying "We cannot rule out that the situation will drastically improve, allowing U.S. troops to leave the country in great numbers in three to six months." Iran's ambassador says Iraq's foreign minister has promised him that Iranians captured by U.S. troops in north of the country last week will be freed "within days," adding that their detention was an insult to the Iraqi government and people. Kuwait's emir told Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that Washington should talk to Syria and Iran to improve the situation in Iraq. Rice was in Kuwait Tuesday to discuss Iraq with her counterparts from the six Arab Gulf states plus Jordan and Egypt.
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