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Iraqi Leader Sets Strategy for Easing Violence


Following President Bush's visit, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is said to face his toughest challenge yet. Tomorrow morning he'll attempt to assert control over Baghdad. The capital city is plagued by violence and crime.

NPR's Philip Reeves has the story.

PHILIP REEVES reporting:

If there was ever a city that needs a security plan, it's Baghdad. Its people seem numb, hardened by incessant bombings and by the bodies that turn up every day with bullets through their skulls. For more than three years, Baghdad's residents haven't been able to travel to their own airport without wondering if they'll make it. But, says Iraq's new Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, that's about to change.

Prime Minister NOURI AL-MALIKI (Iraq): (Through translator) There is a security plan that's been approved, and it will put an end to all the killing of the sons of our country in the street.

REEVES: That plan comes into force tomorrow. Analysts agree it's a critical moment for Iraq's government and for the Bush administration. Iraq's in danger of collapse into all out civil war. After weeks of internal feuding, Maliki last week completed his government with the swearing in of ministers for key security portfolios.

Now he's making his big move, an attempt to secure his violent capital in the hope this will assert the government's authority and establish its credibility. The crackdown in Baghdad will, say Iraqi officials, be the biggest since U.S. forces invaded in 2003.

(Soundbite of crowd noise)

REEVES: At a press conference today, Major General Abedel Aziz Mohammed Jassem(ph), joint operations director from the Iraqi Defense Ministry, spelt out the details.

Major General ABEDEL AZIZ MOHAMMED JASSEM (Iraqi Defense Ministry): (Through translator) It's a security plan in which we are deploying all of our forces, army, police, coalition forces, in an intensive way, especially concentrating on selected trouble spots.

REEVES: The general said tens of thousands of forces will be on Baghdad's streets. U.S. forces will be in support. There'll be a ban on civilians carrying weapons, a longer nighttime curfew and in some neighborhoods house search and, he said, the period in which the clamp down will be enforced is open-ended.

Prime Minster MALIKI: (Through translator) The time limit for this plan will be this, we'll stop when we've made Baghdad secure.

REEVES: Making Baghdad secure is, however, an enormous undertaking. It'll mean reaching beyond the followers of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the head of al-Qaida in Iraq killed in a U.S. air strike last week. To succeed, Iraqi security forces will have to deal with insurgents who month after month have been systematically planting roadside bombs, assassinating officials and attacking the infrastructure. And they'll have to end the daily sectarian killings.

Vice President SALAM AL-ZUBET(ph) (Iraq): (Through translator) The operation will without doubt face some challenges.

REEVES: That's Salam al-Zubet, one of Iraq's vice presidents and the former Defense Minister. He says the operation's complicated by the tensions between the different Iraqi forces involved in it, the Iraqi army and Interior Ministry forces.

Vice President AL-ZUBET: (Through translator) Everyone knows the security apparatuses have been infiltrated. There are what you might call militias which do not respect the law.

REEVES: Tonight in Baghdad, Iraqi security forces are already on the streets in extra numbers. As darkness drew in, soldiers in a Humvee were stopping people for questioning.

Eighty-one year old Abman Bishear(ph) has lived through Saddam's dictatorship and through the chaos that followed his fall. He'll be watching tomorrow's event develop with a skeptical eye.

Mr. ABMAN BISHEAR (Baghdad resident): (Through translator) I have heard about the security plan and saw it on television, but we want something tangible. For years we've had nothing.

REEVES: For Maliki the crackdown in Baghdad is a high stakes maneuver in which success is far from guaranteed. A few weeks back he declared a state of emergency in the southern city of Basra. Several days later, more than two dozen people died in one of the worst bombings the city's seen.

Philip Reeves, NPR News, Baghdad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.