BAGHDAD, Iraq – Iraq announced plans Thursday to deploy 40,000 police and soldiers in the capital and ring the city with hundreds of checkpoints “like a bracelet” in the largest show of Iraqi force since the fall of Saddam Hussein.
Also Thursday, two U.S. soldiers died when their helicopter was shot down.
In a reminder of the difficulty Iraqi security forces face in stopping insurgent attacks, violence killed at least 15 people in Baghdad. Attacks included a car bomb that exploded near a police patrol, killing five people and wounding 17.
Two American soldiers died Thursday night when their helicopter was shot down near Baghdad, while another was hit but landed safely, said Capt. Patricia Brewer, a military spokeswoman in Baghdad. The two pilots, who were supporting ground troops, were the only ones aboard when it was hit by small arms fire and crashed, she said.
In Baghdad, Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari told a small group of Western reporters that next week’s planned crackdown, dubbed Operation Lightning, was designed “to restore the initiative to the government.” Insurgents have killed more than 620 people since his government was announced on April 28.
“We will establish, with God’s help, an impenetrable blockade surrounding Baghdad like a bracelet surrounds a wrist,” Defense Minister Saadoun al-Duleimi said.
Iraqi authorities did not say how long the crackdown would last, and it was uncertain if the Iraq security services are capable of mounting a sustained operation. Except for a few elite units, most police officers are believed to have joined up for the high pay the job provides – at $300 a month their salaries are triple the average wage.
Iraq currently has 89,400 security personnel attached to the Ministry of Interior, according to the U.S. military. This includes police, highway patrol and some commando units, although the figure may include some who have deserted. Another 75,800 forces are in the country’s military, most of them in the army.
Al-Jaafari said his government was working hard to recruit, train and equip its police and army, but still needed support from 160,000 foreign troops, including 138,000 from the United States, to deal with the raging insurgency.
American forces will back the Iraqis with logistical aid and air cover during Operation Lightning, according to the U.S. military.
Al-Jaafari said all of Baghdad’s 23 entry points would be controlled. Interior Minister Bayan Jabr, who helped announce Operation Lightning, or “Barq” in Arabic, said there would be 675 checkpoints along with mobile checkpoints to try to deter assailants around the city and in areas where attacks are frequent.
Al-Duleimi, one of a handful of Sunni Muslims in the Shiite-led government, called on all Iraqis to stand up to an insurgency that has raged unabated for more than a year.
“We have the absolute belief that there is no place for the terrorists, there is no place for those who give shelter to the terrorists, or those who provoke terrorism,” he said. “We will stand solidly against anyone who tries to shed a drop of Iraqi blood, against anyone who tries to kill any Iraqi.”
Northwest of Baghdad, in Haditha, more than 1,000 U.S. troops continued a sweep for insurgents responsible for attacks against coalition troops. They ordered at least one airstrike Thursday against a suspected militant position. At least 11 insurgents and one Marine have been killed since Operation New Market began Wednesday.
Some of the insurgents in Haditha are believed loyal to Iraq’s most wanted militant, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, whose fate has been the subject of intense discussions this week from Baghdad to the Internet to Washington. Reports said he had been wounded.
One U.S. defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Thursday that the military’s most credible sources lean toward the idea that al-Zarqawi is injured or wounded, not dead.
Jabr, the interior minister, said his office believes al-Zarqawi has been wounded. An Internet statement also claimed that al-Zarqawi’s terrorist group, al Qaeda in Iraq, had appointed a deputy to fill in for him.
Al-Jaafari said his government did not have “accurate information” that al-Zarqawi was wounded. “But let’s not narrow it down to single person. It’s about a phenomenon and its cause,” al-Jaafari said of the insurgency.
That was echoed in Washington by U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Carter Ham, the former commander of Task Force Olympia, who directed thousands of troops during 13 months of combat operations in northern Iraq. “He is the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq. And clearly, his capture or removal from that position will have a significant effect on al Qaeda in Iraq,” Ham said. “My only caution is we ought not expect that when that happens, that the organization will crumble and will cease to exist. The organization has proven to be somewhat resilient.”