Iraq

Iraq: Mortars kill 15 in Baghdad after deadly truck bomb

By Ibon Villelabeitia

BAGHDAD, Feb 4 (Reuters) - Mortar bombs killed 15 people in a Sunni neighbourhood in Baghdad on Sunday in fresh violence after a truck bomb killed 135 people in a Shi'ite area in the worst single bombing since the U.S.-led 2003 invasion.

The spiralling sectarian bloodshed threw the spotlight on Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's planned crackdown in Baghdad, but a U.S. general warned it would not produce results overnight and said reinforcements were still being deployed.

U.S. officers told a group of reporters the U.S.-Iraqi campaign to stabilise Baghdad would begin soon and said the offensive would be on a scale never seen in four years of war.

The mortar rounds crashed down in the northern Adhamiya district as clashes were reported between gunmen and police in religiously mixed Amil district, police said. Details were sketchy but Adhamiya is frequently subjected to mortar barrages.

More than 20 people were reported killed elsewhere in Baghdad in bomb attacks and drive-by shootings and police found 42 bodies of apparent sectarian execution-style killings.

As pressure piled on Maliki to halt a descent into all-out civil war, the U.S. military spokesman urged patience.

"It is important to acknowledge that it will not turn the security situation overnight," Major General William Caldwell said of the Baghdad plan, announced in January.

"People must be patient. Give the government and coalition forces a chance to fully implement it. It will take some time for additional Iraqi and U.S. forces to be deployed," he said.

OFFENSIVE SET TO BEGIN

Three American colonels who are senior advisers to the Iraqi army and police in Baghdad said a command centre overseeing the crackdown would be activated on Monday.

"The expectation is the plan will be implemented soon thereafter," Colonel Doug Heckman, senior adviser to the 9th Iraqi Army division, said at a U.S. military base in Baghdad.

"It's going to be an operation unlike anything this city has seen. It's a multiple order magnitude of difference, not just a 30 percent, I mean a couple hundred percent," he added, referring to previous offensives that failed to stem bloodshed.

Despite opposition from Democrats in control of Congress, President George W. Bush has said he is sending 21,500 reinforcements, most earmarked for Baghdad, to stem sectarian violence between majority Shi'ites and once-dominant Sunnis.

A senior Shi'ite official in Maliki's government voiced frustration over the government's inability to curb violence, which has claimed around 1,000 lives across Iraq in the past week.

"There is anger against the government among Shi'ite public opinion now," the official said.

"People are getting fed up and very upset. They are asking for action from the government. They want an answer to these killings," he said.

Caldwell repeated U.S. accusations that Iran was supplying weapons to and training "extremist elements" in Iraq. Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said half the Sunni militants behind the bombings in Iraq had arrived through neighbouring Syria.

U.S. and Iraqi officials have long accused Iraq's neighbours of failing to stop militants from crossing into Iraq.

A bulldozer cleared debris and workers picked through blood-stained rubble looking for more bodies after Saturday's truck bomb attack. A suicide bomber drove a 1,000-tonne truck bomb into a crowded market. More than 300 people were wounded.

Maliki blamed the blast on supporters of Saddam Hussein and other Sunni militants and repeated his pledge to act firmly.

But patience is running thin among war-weary Iraqis. In Sadriya, Shi'ites said the Mehdi Army militia of cleric Moqtada al-Sadr should handle security, not government forces.

Mass attacks against Shi'ites have reinforced perceptions among many Shi'ites that militias such as the Mehdi Army offer them the best protection against Sunni insurgents.

The Pentagon has said the Mehdi Army poses a greater threat to peace in Iraq than al Qaeda. Maliki's critics say an offensive last summer failed because the Iraqi army committed too few troops and because he was reluctant to confront Sadr's militias. The cleric is a key political ally of Maliki.

Asked if the Mehdi Army's stronghold in Sadr City would be cleaned out, Heckman said all options were open.

"If we feel we need to clear Sadr City to bring stability, we will do that. Are there restrictions that will not allow us to do that? Right now there are not," Heckman said.

(Additional reporting by Dean Yates, Aseel Kami, Mariam Karouny, Ahmed Rasheed, Ross Colvin)

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