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Iraq cancels leave for military officers in advance of Saddam verdict

Saturday, November 4, 2006

By STEVEN R. HURST

The Associated Press

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Iraq canceled leave Friday for all military officers two days before an expected verdict -- and possible death sentence -- in the trial of Saddam Hussein. For the second time this week, a top Bush administration official huddled with the Iraqi prime minister.

Many of Saddam's fellow Sunni Arabs, along with some Shiites and Kurds, are predicting a firestorm of violence if the court sentences the ex-president to death, as is widely expected. Bloodshed is already high, with police finding the bodies of 87 torture victims throughout the capital between 6 a.m. Thursday and 6 p.m. Friday.

But most Shiites, including Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, are likely to be enraged if he escapes the gallows. Al-Maliki declared last month he expected "this criminal tyrant will be executed," saying that would likely break the will of Saddam's followers in the insurgency.

In a videotape Friday, Defense Minister Abdul-Qader al-Obeidi was heard issuing the order canceling all military leaves and ordering vacationing soldiers back to duty. The order took effect at noon Friday and was announced at a meeting among al-Maliki and senior military and security officials.

While there was no direct reference on the tape linking the cancellation of leaves with the Saddam trial verdict, there was discussion of imposing a curfew for Sunday.

"All vacations will be canceled and all those who are on vacation must return," al-Obeidi said.

At one point during the meeting, al-Maliki could be heard upbraiding his top military brass for failing to stop the capital's unbridled violence.

But attacks are not limited to Baghdad. South of the capital, police in Kut found 13 more bodies Friday, seven pulled from the Tigris River. Elsewhere in Iraq at least nine others died violent deaths.

The U.S. military announced seven more deaths -- four Marines and three soldiers killed Thursday -- raising the death toll for November to 11. At least 105 U.S. forces died in October, the fourth highest monthly toll of the war.

Al-Maliki's demand for a speedier transfer of power to his military was believed to have been among issues he discussed with U.S. National Intelligence Director John Negroponte in the heavily fortified Green Zone.

Negroponte arrived just four days after National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley paid an unannounced visit to the Iraqi capital and was heard to say he had come "to reinforce some of the things you have heard from our president."

The two top U.S. officials came to the Iraqi capital in close succession after a video conference Oct. 28 during which President Bush and al-Maliki agreed to set up a five-member committee to coordinate military and political matters.

Hassan al-Suneid, a top al-Maliki aide and lawmaker from his Dawa Party, said at the time that the Iraqi leader was using the GOP's vulnerability in the coming midterm congressional elections to leverage concessions from the White House -- particularly the speedy withdrawal of American forces from Iraqi cities to U.S. bases in the country.

Al-Maliki had complained bitterly about recent U.S.-Iraqi operations, under the direction of U.S. officers, saying they were causing undue problems for the Iraqi people and undermining his authority.

On Tuesday, al-Maliki ordered the end of an American blockade of Sadr City, the capital's sprawling Shiite slum, and the central Karradah district. The Americans imposed the blockades the week before in their search for a kidnapped U.S. soldier.

Al-Maliki and a major political backer, radical anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose Mahdi Army militia runs Sadr City, charged the U.S. with collectively punishing the people of the two districts.

In the meantime, the U.S. military has announced that al-Maliki planned to raise his military force structure by an estimated 18,000 men to a total of about 144,000. Al-Maliki has claimed he believes the quicker his forces control the country, the faster violence will diminish.

Gen. George W. Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said last month that he believed Iraqi forces would be ready to take control of all of the country in 12 to 18 months, with "some level" of American support.

The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad would provide no details of the Negroponte visit and said it was not announced in advance as a matter of security.

The Iraqi government said the intelligence boss had reassured al-Maliki of Bush's continued backing.

"They discussed the latest political developments in Iraq and stressed the importance of Iraqi troop readiness and building them both quantitatively and qualitatively so they are ready to take control of Iraq's security. Negroponte reaffirmed the support of President Bush and his administration for the Iraqi government," the al-Maliki Cabinet said in a statement.

Negroponte served as the ambassador to Iraq before the current envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, whose announcement two weeks ago of plans for timelines to measure the Iraqi government's success in curbing violence enraged al-Maliki.

The increasingly prickly prime minister said at one point that he was a friend of the United States but "not America's man in Iraq."

All 87 bodies recovered in Baghdad were dressed in civilian clothes and had been bound at the wrists and ankles, police Lt. Mohammed Khayon said. They showed signs of torture, a common practice among religious extremists who seize victims from private homes or from cars and buses traveling the capital's dangerous streets.

Such slayings are rarely solved, and Khayon said the police had no solid information on the victims' identities or their killers.

Shiite militiamen and death squads have been blamed for many of Baghdad's sectarian killings, which skyrocketed after the February al-Qaida bombing of a Shiite shrine.

The Sunni insurgency bears responsibility for a vast majority of American deaths and has conducted vicious attacks against Shiite civilians in a bid to start a civil war, which now threatens to engulf Baghdad and many regions in central Iraq.

U.S. forces acting on intelligence reports raided a building in Mahmoudiya, about 20 miles south of Baghdad, killing 13 suspected insurgents, the military said.

The troops surrounded and stormed the building after those inside refused to surrender, it said. Five people were killed inside the building, including a man wearing a vest rigged with explosives, while eight men who fled were gunned down by troops on the ground and by planes or helicopters circling above.

The military said several of those killed appeared to have been foreign fighters from outside Iraq.


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