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A quiet crackdown in Iraq


BAGHDAD, Iraq -- On the first day of a highly publicized security crackdown, Iraqi police and soldiers fanned out across the capital, manning new and existing checkpoints and enforced a 9 p.m. curfew in an effort to counter the perception that Baghdad is sliding into chaos.

But security forces throughout the capital did not appear to take any extraordinary or novel measures yesterday to curtail vehicle traffic or remove weapons from the city. As in the past, police and soldiers at some checkpoints in volatile West Baghdad had their helmets off, relaxing in the shade of palm trees as cars whizzed by unimpeded

In the violence-racked Sadiya neighborhood, which has become a caldron of sectarian tensions between Sunni and Shiite Arabs, a resident who asked to remain unidentified said that there appeared to be fewer checkpoints staffed by fewer soldiers than in recent months.

Merchant Mustafa Husam said security measures did not appear to have been beefed up in his neighborhood either.

"I was expecting something different today, like massive forces roaming our streets," said Husam, referring to the Sunni-dominated Ameriyah district, which has been considered a stronghold for insurgents. "But there were only a few checkpoints on our main road. There were even some concrete barriers that were removed today."

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, attempting to build on a sense of hope spurred by the killing last week of insurgent leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and the completion of the Iraqi Cabinet, announced the security plan on Tuesday during a surprise visit by President Bush.

Al-Maliki formally took over the premiership of the ravaged country a month ago, vowing to staunch the intensifying violence between the country's disparate ethnic and religious groups. Security woes that have psychologically and economically ravaged the country have been his primary concern, as they were for Iraq's interim governments that followed the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein.

More so than his fellow Shiite predecessor, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, al-Maliki has been willing to make conciliatory gestures toward the more moderate elements in the Sunni insurgency.

Al-Maliki said yesterday that he would announce a "reconciliation plan" today that "contains a door to talk with the armed groups that opposed the political process and now want to get back to politics."

Al-Maliki and his newly appointed security ministers, during public appearances, also took pains to emphasize that the new security measures would respect human rights and not target specific neighborhoods, overtly acknowledging fears by Sunni Arabs that any crackdown by security forces dominated by Shiites and infiltrated by Shiite political militias would target their communities.

The security plan "is not against a particular group of people," al-Maliki told reporters. "It is not against particular regions."

On the first day of the crackdown, there appeared to be less violence in the capital than on many recent days. Except for one car bomb that killed one and injured 10 in western Baghdad and gunfights in the northern Adhamiya district, there were few reports of violence.

Elsewhere in Iraq yesterday, violence continued unabated. Clashes between armed men and security forces in the provincial capital Baqouba, northeast of Baghdad, erupted for the second day, with fighting breaking out in the city's downtown. At least four Iraqis have died in the violence. And gunmen in nearby Muqdadiyah shot dead a municipal worker yesterday.

Borzou Daragahi writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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