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AP IMPACT: Infighting hampers start of Baghdad security crackdown

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BAGHDAD, Iraq — Iraqi commanders are urging the Americans to go after Sunni targets as the first focus of the military push to secure Baghdad, displaying a sectarian tilt that is delaying full implementation of the plan to drive gunmen from the streets, U.S. officers say.
    American officers, interviewed at the sprawling Camp Victory base at the western edge of the capital, also acknowledge they are finding little in their initial searches of Baghdad neighborhoods — suggesting either they received faulty intelligence or that the massive publicity that preceded the operation gave militants time to slip away.
    The chief military spokesman, Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell, said Wednesday that the much-anticipated Baghdad security operation was under way. His remarks came about a month after President Bush announced he was dispatching 21,500 more troops to curb sectarian bloodletting.
    Under the plan, Baghdad is to be divided into nine zones, with Iraqi and American soldiers working side-by-side to clear each sector of Shiite militias and Sunni insurgents so that reconstruction programs can begin in safety.
    Although Iraqis have seen an increase in the number of checkpoints and other security measures, there is little sign of a ‘‘surge’’ of troops in the streets. U.S. officials insist the public will see a big increase soon.
    U.S. officers told The Associated Press that the delays in implementing the plan were in part a result of disagreements between American and Iraqi commanders about what neighborhoods should be cleared first.
    During joint planning sessions, the Iraqis have been urging U.S. officials to focus on neighborhoods believed to harbor Sunni insurgents, according to officers familiar with the discussions. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the subject is sensitive.
    Several U.S. officers said the Iraqis, especially representatives of the Shiite-run Interior Ministry, played down the threat posed by the biggest Shiite militia, the Mahdi Army. They blamed much of the violence against Sunnis on fringe elements.
    That led some U.S. officers to conclude that the Iraqis were afraid that confronting the Mahdi Army, led by anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, would undercut support for the Shiite-led government and trigger even more violence.
    ‘‘The targeting focus from our (Iraqi) counterparts indicates a leaning toward Sunni al-Qaida-based targets as opposed to Shiite militias,’’ one U.S. officer said.
    Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, however, has offered assurances that the security operation will not target any specific religious or ethnic group and that the law will be enforced evenhandedly.
    ‘‘Some say that the plan targets Shiites, and others say it targets Sunnis. I want to say it targets all, but all those who break the law,’’ al-Maliki said last month.
    But one Iraqi general, speaking on condition of anonymity, acknowledged there were differences between U.S. and Iraqi planners on the best way to conduct the operation, with each side insisting on the final say. The Iraqi said his colleagues have the feeling the Americans ‘‘don’t trust us.’’
    The U.S. officers said they had no intention of knuckling under to the Iraqi demands and were confident the Iraqis would come around in the end. But the dispute has resulted in delays, they said.
    Those differences have also held up a final decision how to carve up the city into the nine zones and where to deploy Iraqi units that are being sent in for the operation, U.S. and Iraqi officials said.
    Iraqi commanders are supposed to send about 8,000 mostly Shiite and Kurdish troops into the city from southern and northern Iraq. Although Iraqi units have been arriving on schedule, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said last week that they were coming with only 55 to 65 percent of their intended troops.
    Lt. Col. Scott Bleichwehl, spokesman for the U.S. military command in Baghdad, said the district plan was still evolving, but insisted that last-minute changes do not suggest failure. He said such adjustments were to be expected.
    ‘‘This is a collaborative planning process. The adjustments are going to be slight,’’ Bleichwehl said.
    Al-Maliki, a Shiite, is under intense pressure from the United States to crack down on Shiite militias, many of which maintain close links to members of his political alliance. Al-Sadr, for example, controls 30 of the 275 parliament seats and six ministries and has been a strong ally of the prime minister.
    Shiite politicians have long maintained that Sunni militants pose the greater threat. Thousands of Shiite civilians have been killed in bombings and suicide attacks carried out by al-Qaida in Iraq and other Sunni groups.
    Shiite leaders insist that the Shiite militias flourished because the U.S. and its allies could not protect civilians. They say if the Sunni insurgents were crushed, the threat from Shiite hard-liners would go away.
    U.S. officials believe extremists in both Islamic sects must be routed to halt the tit-for-tat kidnappings and killings which have plunged this country into civil conflict.
    Some U.S. officials suspect the Shiites are more interested in solidifying their grip on Baghdad after Shiite militias forced many Sunnis from the city.
    Many Iraqis of both sects have been complaining that the security operation has been slow in taking off, enabling extremists to launch more attacks, such as a devastating truck bombing that killed 137 people on Feb. 3 in a mostly Shiite area of central Baghdad.
    Meanwhile, U.S. soldiers have been stepping up the search for militants and weapons, including a sweep through Hurriyah, a Baghdad neighborhood where rampaging Shiite militiamen drove hundreds of Sunni families from their homes last December.
    Paratroopers from the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, the first of the new U.S. commands to arrive for the operation, have begun moving into some of the cleared areas.
    But the results of some operations have been less than expected.
    This week, a joint U.S.-Iraqi force swept through Shaab, a largely Shiite neighborhood in northeast Baghdad where militiamen clashed with American soldiers last year.
    The search was the largest so far since the new operation began. Most Iraqis welcomed soldiers into their homes with offers of tea.
    But the troops managed to capture only 16 suspects and seize three Kalashnikov rifles in a neighborhood that intelligence said was a hotbed of bomb-makers.
    ‘‘I don’t know if it’s bad information, bad intelligence, of if they knew we were coming and left,’’ said Capt. Isaac Torres of the Army’s 3rd Brigade Stryker Combat Team. ‘‘They were all dry holes.’’
    Associated Press reporter Qassim Abdul-Zahra contributed to this report.
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