BAGHDAD, Iraq – American and Iraqi troops plan to launch a large-scale security sweep in Baghdad this morning following a surprise 5 1/2-hour visit to the Iraqi capital by President Bush on Tuesday.
According to the plan, which Iraqi officials have hinted at for several weeks, tens of thousands of Iraqi and American troops are expected to flood Baghdad neighborhoods to install checkpoints and enforce a partial weapons ban, a curfew and other security measures.
Only Iraqi security forces and those with a license will be allowed to carry weapons on the streets, but Iraqis will still be allowed to own one automatic weapon for their own protection as long as the weapon is kept at home, Maj. Gen. Abed Jassem of Iraq’s Ministry of Defense, told reporters at a news conference Tuesday.
A nighttime curfew will run from 8:30 p.m. to 6 a.m. for an indefinite period of time. A midday vehicle ban will also be imposed between the hours of 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
The visit by Bush, who met with Iraqi government leaders and American soldiers in the tightly secured Green Zone, came at what American and Iraqi officials hope will be a crucial time.
In recent days, a new democratically elected government has taken shape, and the U.S. military has killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq.
But Baghdad remains more violent than at any other time since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 that toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein. At least 2,155 people died violently in the capital during May, according to government documents.
The new security plan for Baghdad is designed to stem the escalating series of shootings, bombings and kidnappings.
The plan was one of the topics of discussion as Bush met with Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister of Iraq, and his Cabinet inside one of Saddam Hussein’s ornate former palaces, which now serves as part of the U.S. embassy here.
“I’ve come not only to look you in the eye,” Bush told al-Maliki. “I’ve also come to tell you that when America gives its word, it will keep its word. It’s in our interest that Iraq succeeds.”
“We have to defeat all the terrorists,” al-Maliki said after the meeting. “God willing, all the suffering will be over and all the soldiers will return to their countries.”
On the way back to the United States, Bush told reporters aboard Air Force One that Iraqi officials had expressed “concern about our commitment and keeping our troops there.”
“There’s a worry, almost to a person, that we will leave before they are capable of defending themselves,” he said. “I assured them they didn’t need to worry. I also made it clear that we want to work with their government on a way forward on all fronts.”
Accompanied by his national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, and Joshua Bolten, his chief of staff, Bush touched down at Baghdad Airport on Tuesday afternoon after an 11-hour overnight flight from Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington. He then flew by helicopter to the Green Zone.
The trip offered Bush an opportunity to turn public attention in the United States to events that administration officials have hailed as signs of progress in Iraq: the first steps of a democratically elected government made up of representatives of the country’s three main ethnic and sectarian groups.
He clearly relished the chance to see the new government in person, and his senior aides had been preparing for some time to launch the journey as soon as al-Maliki had completed his Cabinet.
Beyond the political considerations, the visit offered Bush the opportunity to meet with al-Maliki and take his measure in person.
The president has made clear his preference for dealing directly with other leaders, experiencing the give-and-take of unscripted conversations that he says allow him to get to know others with whom he is interacting.
The visit, Bush’s first to Iraq since Thanksgiving Day of 2003, came as at least 37 people were killed in violence in Baghdad and to the west and north of the capital. Iraqi security forces arrested 56 suspected insurgents and killed five others during a 24-hour period ending Tuesday, according to a statement from the Ministry of Defense.
As Bush’s trip unfolded, Jassem, the major general speaking for Iraq’s Ministry of Defense, outlined the new security plan for Baghdad and surrounding areas. A special plan for the neighboring province of Diyala, north of Baghdad, where al-Zarqawi was found and killed, is also being developed, he said.
Concentrating first on “hot spots,” security forces will conduct targeted raids, he said.
All government ministries have been involved in preparing the plan, Jassem said, adding that one of the key hopes is to help restore confidence in the Iraqi security forces.
Many Iraqis, particularly Sunnis, allege that Shiite militias have infiltrated the security forces and are carrying out torture and extrajudicial killings.
In the last year, the nature of the violence in Baghdad has changed. In previous years, Shiites were the predominant victims of bombings and other violence. This year, Sunnis have been disproportionately the victims.
Without laying out specifics, Jassem said that “part of the plan is to (absorb) the militias within the security forces.”
“The new government is serious about reestablishing the people’s trust – not only in the army but also in the Ministry of Interior forces,” he said.
In an interview earlier this week, U.S. Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV said that violence between Sunni Arabs and Shiites has eclipsed the battle against insurgents as the biggest problem in the capital.
“And that’s what concerns me,” he said, adding that sectarian violence is harder to quell. “If it’s an insurgency, you can go after the insurgents.”