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U.S. military acknowledges bid to secure Iraqi capital has not met expectations
BAGHDAD, Iraq -- The U.S. military acknowledged Thursday that its two-month drive to crush insurgent and militia violence in the Iraqi capital had fallen short, calling the raging bloodshed disheartening and saying it was rethinking its strategy to rein in gunmen, torturers and bombers.
The admission by military spokesman Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell came as car bombs, mortar fire and shootings around the country killed at least 66 people and wounded 175. The dead included the Anbar province police commander, slain by gunmen who burst into his home in Ramadi.
The U.S. military also announced the deaths of three U.S. troops in fighting, raising the toll for American troops in October to 74. The month is on course to be the deadliest for U.S. forces in nearly two years.
The high death tolls this month for both Americans and Iraqis have pushed the long and unpopular war back into the public eye in the United States, forcing the Bush administration and the military to address difficult questions in the final weeks of the midterm U.S. election campaign.
Vice President Dick Cheney said the United States was not looking for a way out of Iraq. "I know what the president thinks. I know what I think. And we're not looking for an exit strategy. We're looking for victory," Cheney said in an interview posted on Time magazine's Web site Thursday.
Caldwell told reporters the U.S.-Iraqi bid to crush violence in the capital had not delivered the desired results, with attacks in Baghdad rising by 22 percent in the first three weeks of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan when compared to the three previous weeks.
"In Baghdad, Operation Together Forward has made a difference in the focus areas but has not met our overall expectations in sustaining a reduction in the level of violence," Caldwell said at a news briefing. He was referring to the security sweep, which began Aug. 7 with the introduction of an additional 12,000 U.S. and Iraqi troops into Baghdad.
"The violence is indeed disheartening," he said.
Caldwell said U.S. troops over the last week were forced to launch a second sweep of southern Baghdad's Dora district after a surge in sectarian attacks. At least eight people, including four policemen, were killed in bombings and shootings in Dora on Thursday, police said.
"We find the insurgent elements, the extremists are in fact punching back hard, they're trying to get back into those areas," Caldwell said.
He said security plans were being reviewed for the sprawling, low-rise capital of 6 million people, where rival Shiite and Sunni Muslim sects live in uneasy proximity to each other and the bodies of victims of sectarian death squads are found dumped on the streets each morning.
"It's clear that the conditions under which we started are probably not the same today and so it does require some modifications of the plan," Caldwell said.
His gloomy assessment came amid tensions between the United States and the nearly 5-month-old government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Frustration over al-Maliki's failure to crack down on sectarian groups could be exacerbated by revelations that the prime minister ordered U.S. troops to release Mazin al-Sa'edi, a top organizer in western Baghdad for radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
Caldwell said al-Sa'edi was freed after being detained Wednesday with five aides for suspected involvement in Shiite violence. Al-Sadr's al-Mahdi Army has been blamed for sporadic attacks and for inspiring groups kidnapping and killing Sunnis.
The newly reported U.S. deaths included a Marine and a soldier killed in Anbar province in the Sunni heartland west of Baghdad and another soldier who died in a roadside bombing near Balad, the city north of Baghdad where at least 95 Sunnis and Shiites were killed in five days of revenge attacks.
Caldwell said the spike in violence was in line with past increases during Ramadan. But he also said a more aggressive stance toward insurgents was leading to more engagements -- and more U.S. deaths.
Among those taking part in the security push, Maj. Ken Slover of the 172nd Stryker Brigade said the higher death toll was a result of the presence of greater numbers of U.S. soldiers in Baghdad.
"We're out in the woods, we're out there looking for the enemy," said Slover, who on Thursday was overseeing the distribution of 50 gasoline generators and food packages in western Baghdad.
"When there's more presence, there's more chance" of casualties," Slover said.
The Stryker Brigade's yearlong tour in Iraq was extended by 120 days when they were recently shifted to Baghdad.
As U.S. troops focus on crushing insurgent and militia activity in central Iraq, the northern cities of Mosul and Kirkuk have seen a significant increase in violence. Most attacks have been blamed on Sunni Arab militants fighting to block the cities' feared integration into the Kurdish-controlled region in the north.
On Thursday, police in Mosul shot to death a suicide bomber driving a truck at high speed toward a police post, said Col. Khalaf Ismail. Although the post was saved, the gunfire ignited fuel and explosives on the truck, killing 12 people and wounding 25 -- mostly motorists lined up for gasoline at a nearby service station. Col. Abed Hamed al-Jibouri said 42 cars were destroyed in the blast.
In Kirkuk, a suicide bomber attacked a bank where civilians and army soldiers were waiting to get their wages. Twelve people, including four troops, were killed and 47 were wounded, said police Brig. Sarhat Qader.
Interior Ministry spokesman Brig. Abdul-Karim Khalaf said militants of al-Qaida in Iraq suffered unspecified losses in clashes with security and tribal forces in Ramadi, 70 miles west of Baghdad.
He said as many as 60 al-Qaida gunmen arrived Wednesday in 17 vehicles and remained there for 15 minutes before being forced to flee.
Witnesses in Ramadi confirmed the basics of Khalaf's account, but added that the masked gunmen staged a military-like parade, carrying banners exhorting people to support an Islamic state in Iraq. They said mosques used loudspeakers to rally support for the new state.
The Mujahedeen Shura Council -- an umbrella organization of insurgent groups that includes al-Qaida in Iraq -- said in a video Sunday that it has established an Islamic state made up of six provinces, including Baghdad.
Insurgents are not known to control any territory. However, the Ramadi parade pointed to their growing confidence in a city where U.S. and Iraqi forces have a heavy presence.
In the largely peaceful, Shiite-dominated south of the country, a fight broke out Thursday pitting Shiites against each other in Amarah. Clashes erupted between members of the Mahdi Army and policemen trying to stop the fighters from storming their headquarters. Nine people were killed, including six militiamen, and 59 were wounded, police and hospital officials said.