U.S. steps up Baghdad patrols amid violence

BAGHDAD, Iraq – U.S. troops have sharply increased patrols in Baghdad since the spike in sectarian violence, a U.S. general said Thursday, raising questions about the capabilities of Iraqi forces.

Also Thursday, a car bomb killed least 15 people in a Shiite area of the capital, and at least 21 other people, including an American soldier and seven members of a Sunni family, died in other attacks.

Latest identifications reported by the military of U.S. personnel killed in Iraq:

Army Spc. James Gardner, 22, Glasgow, Ky.; killed Monday in Tal Afar from a noncombat-related cause; assigned to the 1st Battalion, 101st Aviation Regiment, 101st Combat Aviation Brigade, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), Fort Campbell, Ky.

Marine Lance Cpl. Eric Palmisano, 27, Florence, Wis.; killed April 2 when a truck rolled over in a flash flood in Anbar province; assigned to 1st Transportation Support Battalion, 1st Marine Logistics Group, I Marine Expeditionary Force, Camp Pendleton, Calif.

Army Spc. Shawn Creighton, 21, Windsor, N.C.; killed Saturday when his vehicle hit a roadside explosive in Rawah; assigned to the 4th Squadron, 14th Cavalry Regiment, 172nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, Fort Wainwright, Alaska.

Army Spc. Kenneth Hess, 26, Asheville, N.C.; killed Tuesday during a suicide bomber attack in Rawah; assigned to the 4th Squadron, 14th Cavalry Regiment, 172nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, Fort Wainwright.

Army Cpl. Joseph Blanco, 25, Bloomington, Calif.; Army Pfc. James Costello, 27, St. Louis; Army Pfc. George Roehl, 21, Manchester, N.H.; killed Tuesday by a roadside explosive and small arms fire in Taji; assigned to the 7th Squadron, 10th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, Fort Hood, Texas.

With sectarian violence on the rise in Baghdad, the U.S. command has boosted the number of armed patrols in the capital from 12,000 in February to 20,000 since the beginning of March, Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch said.

He said the increase provides a “more visible presence for the security forces in the streets of Baghdad,” which insurgents consider their “center of gravity” to stop formation of a new unity government.

“We’re taking the fight to the enemy specifically in Baghdad with the presence we have on the ground,” Lynch said.

Tit-for-tat killings between Shiites and Sunnis soared after the Feb. 22 bombing of a major Shiite shrine in Samarra, triggering reprisal attacks against Sunni mosques and clerics. Violence was worse in religiously mixed areas of Baghdad, forcing American troops to return to neighborhoods such as Shula that had been turned over to the Iraqis.

That casts doubt on the capability of Iraqi forces to deal with sectarian violence, despite assurances from American officials that the new army and police forces are gaining steadily in professional skills.

The renewed American presence has not been enough to stop the carnage. The car bomb Thursday exploded in a vegetable market in Shula packed with shoppers buying food for their evening meals, police said. At least 15 people were killed and 22 were wounded. Last week, a car bomb injured 13 people in the same neighborhood.

A roadside bomb Thursday killed a U.S. soldier southwest of Baghdad, the military said. The U.S. command also reported that a Marine died Wednesday of wounds suffered in hostile action near Baghdad.

More American troops were killed in the first two weeks of April – 37 – than in the entire month of March, when 31 died, according to an Associated Press count. At least 2,366 members of the U.S. military have died since the war started in 2003, according to AP’s count.

In Basra, 340 miles southeast of Baghdad, gunmen stormed the house of a Sunni family and killed seven people – a father, five of his sons and another relative, police said. An Iraqi navy officer and his friend were killed by drive-by shooters while walking downtown in the largely Shiite city.

Late Thursday, insurgents ambushed a convoy of Iraqi police traveling from Najaf to the U.S. base at Taji to pick up new vehicles, police said. Officials in Najaf said there were casualties, but they had no figures.

In Baghdad, Mahmoud al-Hashimi, whose brother heads Iraq’s largest Sunni Arab political party, was slain along with a companion Thursday as they drove through a mostly Shiite area, the Iraqi Islamic Party said.

Tariq al-Hashimi is among the key players in negotiations over a new national unity government, which have stalled over the issue of who the next prime minister will be.

The Shiites, the biggest bloc in the 275-member parliament, have nominated Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari for a second term. But Sunni and Kurdish parties, whom the Shiites need as coalition partners, have rejected al-Jaafari and called on the Shiites to name a new candidate.

Al-Jaafari’s supporters within the seven-party Shiite alliance have refused to replace him, and other groups within the bloc fear that trying to force him out will shatter the Shiite political movement.

Parliament speaker Adnan Pachachi has called for parliament to convene Monday to try to resolve the crisis, but Shiite politicians are reluctant to attend until a deal has been struck on the premiership and other top government posts that require parliamentary approval.

Khudayer al-Khuzai, who supports al-Jaafari, proposed that leaders of major Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish parties meet Sunday to try to reach consensus on candidates for top jobs.

“If we don’t agree on the key posts, then why should we go to parliament?” al-Khuzai asked Thursday.

Voters chose the 275-member assembly on Dec. 15, but the legislature met only once last month, and briefly. The lack of progress has frustrated Iraqis, especially as steady violence – much of it sectarian – continues to claim hundreds of lives and threatens to push the country into a large-scale civil war.

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