Progress in Baghdad will take time: U.S. general

A U.S.-backed Iraqi security plan seen as a last-ditch attempt to halt violence in Baghdad will not produce results overnight, a U.S. general warned on Sunday, after a one-ton suicide truck bomb killed 135 people. Saturday’s attack in a mainly Shiite area of Baghdad, the deadliest single bombing since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, again turned the spotlight on Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s planned security sweep in the capital.

But Major General William Caldwell, U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, told reporters: “It is important to acknowledge that it will not turn the security situation overnight.

“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.”

U.S. President George W. Bush last month said he was sending 21,500 reinforcements, most earmarked for Baghdad, to stem sectarian violence between majority Shiites and once-dominant Sunnis that has raised fears of all-out civil war.

Caldwell repeated U.S. accusations that Iran was supplying weapons and training to “extremist elements” in Iraq. Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh told the same briefing that half the Sunni Muslim militants behind the bombings in Iraq had arrived through neighboring Syria.

“There is no question that Iran … conducts internal interference in Iraq, including providing weapons to extremist elements,” Caldwell said. U.S. and Iraqi officials have long accused Iraq’s neighbors of failing to stop Islamic militants from crossing into Iraq to carry out attacks.

Referring to the imminent arrival of Lieutenant General David Petraeus, the new U.S. military commander in Iraq, Caldwell said: “Iraq’s problems are systemic and are not likely to be turned around in the first month after his arrival.”

Ordinary Iraqis are frustrated at the government’s inability to curb violence, which has claimed around 1,000 lives across Iraq in the past week in suicide bombings, shootings and fighting between security forces and militants.

In fresh violence, a series of bomb attacks and drive-by shootings killed 18 people in Baghdad on Sunday.

Maliki, a Shiite, vowed in January to launch a crackdown in the capital to crush insurgents. The push, which has drawn vocal opposition among U.S. Democrats who now control both houses of Congress, has not yet begun.

Rescue workers picked through blood stained rubble looking for more bodies on Sunday. A bulldozer cleared debris after a bomber drove his truck, packed with a tonne of explosives, into a crowded Baghdad market. More than 300 people were wounded.

“What did we do?” said one elderly man as he wailed in front of gutted shop fronts and homes.

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

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

“We are fed up with the government falling short in protecting us. After four years our blood still flows,” said Abu Sajad, 37, a worker living in the Sadriya area.

The Pentagon has said the Mehdi Army poses a greater threat to peace in Iraq than Sunni al-Qaida. Sadr is a Maliki ally.

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