Kurd general says his brigade training for urban combat
BAGHDAD, Iraq -- A Kurdish army brigade from the north of Iraq is undergoing intensive urban combat training for deployment to Baghdad, where it expects to take on the Mahdi Army Shiite militia, its commander said Saturday.
Meanwhile, three Iraqi generals said that the Iraqi commander who will lead the Baghdad security mission was the government's second choice and only got the job after the U.S. military objected to the first officer named to the post by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
In the northern city of Irbil, Brig. Gen. Nazir Assem Korran, commander of the 1st Infantry Brigade, 2nd Division of the Iraqi army, said "we will head to Baghdad soon. We have 3,000 soldiers who are currently undergoing intensive training especially in urban combat and how the army should act inside a city."
Korran said he did not know how the operation would unfold but said the Defense Ministry had asked his brigade to take part in the security operation along with thousands of other Iraqi and U.S. troops.
The forces were to conduct neighborhood-to-neighborhood searches to clear the city of Sunni Muslim insurgents and local militias such as the Mahdi Army of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who has been an ally of al-Maliki.
"We are going to confront any terrorist elements or militias. We will confront any outlaws," the general said. He did not name the Mahdi Army, but the Shiite militia is blamed for much of the capital's sectarian killing and is the only true militia presence in Baghdad.
Later in the day, al-Maliki issued his first comment on the new Bush administration plan outlined on Wednesday, declaring it "identical to our strategy and intentions." President Bush said he would send 21,500 additional troops to help pacify the capital and other parts of the country.
Al-Maliki, however, continued to avoid naming the Mahdi Army of al-Sadr.
"Our strategy that aims to control security is based on using force against any outlaws whatever their background or identity," al-Maliki said in a brief appearance aired on state-run Iraqiya television. Al-Maliki has repeatedly used that kind of formulaic language during his eight months in office, but has blocked American forces from taking on his militia allies.
The prime minister told a small group of Iraqi reporters that "what we have seen in the American strategy is that it is identical to our strategy and our intentions."
On Wednesday, Iraqi military officials said al-Maliki had chosen Lt. Gen. Abboud Gambar a week ago as commander of the new security plan in the capital, where sectarian bloodshed built to a crescendo at the end of last year, with more than 100 people killed on many days.
On Saturday, three Iraqi generals, who spoke on condition of anonymity because Gambar's appointment had not been publicly confirmed, said al-Maliki's first choice -- Lt. Gen. Mohan al-Freiji -- was vetoed by American officials.
"Mohan (al-Freiji) is not flexible at all and cannot be subdued. If he finds something unacceptable, he will never tolerate it. Mohan doesn't take direction at all," one of the generals said. "Abboud is more flexible."
The army generals who spoke to AP said Al-Maliki appointed Gambar a week ago when he told the nation that a new security plan was to be launched within days, but al-Maliki has refused to confirm the appointment. The generals said al-Freiji and Gambar topped the list of candidates to run the drive.
The U.S. military did not respond to an AP e-mail asking for verification of the dispute.
The generals said Gambar, a Shiite veteran of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war and the 1991 Gulf war, would have two deputies, a Shiite and a Sunni, one on each side of the Tigris River that curls through the center of Baghdad.
During the 1991 Gulf War, one of the generals said, Gambar was captured by U.S. troops on the Kuwaiti island of Fialaka and briefly held prisoner in Saudi Arabia.
Under Saddam Hussein's rule, military men normally were fired if taken prisoner, but the former president made an exception for Gambar and his brigade because of their brave defense of Fialaka Island. Gambar, in his early 60s, was decorated by Saddam.
Gambar will report directly to al-Maliki.
Indicating that the new security plan was near its formal opening, military officials said Saturday that Iraq's army 4th Brigade of the 1st Infantry Division arrived in Baghdad's southern neighborhood of Rustomiyah. They said the brigade came from Fallujah, west of Baghdad, but refused to give further details.
Korran, the general in Irbil, said his troops would face a language barrier and rely on translators because 95 percent of the brigade is Kurdish and unable to speak Arabic. Kurds, a separate ethnic group, are largely Sunnis but not Arabs.
His brigade is one of two coming from the Kurdish region. The other will arrive from the northern city of Sulaimaniyah. Another brigade will come from southern Iraq.
"We do not represent any sect or ethnic group," Korran said, adding that he expect to be fighting against "militias in residential areas."
U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who opposes Bush's plans to send more U.S. soldiers, met Saturday with al-Maliki and the two top American commanders during her first visit in nearly a year.
The New York Democrat, who was expected to run for the party's presidential nomination, called the situation in Iraq "heartbreaking" and said she doubted the al-Maliki government would live up to promises it had made about cracking down on violence.
"I don't know that the American people or the Congress at this point believe this mission can work," she said in an interview with ABC News in Baghdad. "And in the absence of a commitment that is backed up by actions from the Iraqi government, why should we believe it?"
Clinton, who was making a one-day visit to the country, was traveling with U.S. Sen. Evan Bayh and Rep. John McHugh, a Republican from upstate New York -- all members of armed services committees.
Underscoring the difficulties in taming the violence, at least 48 people were killed or found dead nationwide on Saturday, including a Sunni cleric who was shot to death near his home in Samarra, 60 miles north of Baghdad.