WASHINGTON, Oct. 19 (UPI) -- The U.S. military for the second time in four months is adjusting its strategy in the battle for Baghdad, a U.S. general said Thursday.
"We're obviously very concerned about what we're seeing in the city," said Brig. Gen. William Caldwell, a U.S. military spokesman in Iraq.
Baghdad neighborhoods that were believed to be secured by U.S. and Iraqi forces have seen increased violence.
"There is no question in the focus areas where we in fact conducted operations, we have seen an increase (in) ... sectarian violence in those areas," Caldwell said. "We find the insurgent elements, the extremists, are in fact punching back hard. They're trying to get back into those areas. We're constantly going back in and doing clearing operations again."
Those areas were selected for the security operation because they were the most violent in Baghdad, Caldwell said. And U.S. officials consider Baghdad the "center of gravity" in Iraq; the war cannot be won unless Baghdad is brought under control.
"We do see incidents occurring just outside the focus areas, clearly an attempt to get into them. It's something we continue to watch and work real closely," he said.
Operation Together Forward, a joint military operation with U.S forces and Iraqi soldiers and police -- about 55,000 troops among a population of 6.5 million -- started in Baghdad on June 14, focusing efforts on a handful of the most violent neighborhoods.
By July 11, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad said the plan was not working and would have to be adjusted.
In late July, the Pentagon announced that the 4,000-members of the 172nd Stryker Brigade would have their year-long Iraq deployment extended by four months so they could be go to Baghdad to reinforce the approximately 8,000 American combat troops operating there.
According to Caldwell, the newly revised strategy -- extra troops, new focus neighborhoods, and a multi-month plan to bring the city under control -- is not yielding results either.
"It's clear that the conditions under which we started are probably not the same today. And so it does require some modifications of the plan. And there is an intense amount of ongoing discussion and briefings that are being held at both the government of Iraq level and at our level, to specifically address these facets," Caldwell said at a Baghdad press conference Thursday.
Caldwell said he believes the insurgents are trying to discredit the Iraqi government by intentionally targeting areas that were already secured in Operation Together Forward.
"We realize that every time we stand up here and brief and talk
about it, it's just as much announcing to somebody, here's the area
where we're operating. If you want to go back and try to discredit
this government, go strike those areas. So that's why we think
there's a lot of that occurring," Caldwell said.
Civilian casualties have remaind steady for the last three months, albeit at distressingly high levels - at least 1,500 a month, most believed at the hands of sectarian executioners. The number of attacks on coalition and Iraqi security forces are climbing, however.
Caldwell said the U.S. military is analyzing its casualties -- 73 in Iraq alone this month, most of them in Baghdad -- to determine who the perpetrators are. Baghdad is a dangerous brew of at least 23 Shi'ite militias, Sunni insurgents, al-Qaida in Iraq, different tribes and violent criminals.
He believes most U.S. casualties have occurred in Sunni areas.
Baghdad is not the only city seeing an increase in violence. In Mosul Thursday, there were six suicide car bombs, three of them targeting Iraqi police stations. Two targeted two different Stryker patrols in the city. There were also four to six indirect fire strikes -- mortars or rockets -- against Iraqi police near the targeted stations. The governor of Ninevah province has declared a curfew and has shut down all checkpoints and bridges into and out of the city.
About 40 miles north of Baghdad in Balad there was a spasm of sectarian violence this week, with as many as 95 dead. Caldwell said the U.S. military believes the catalyst for the violence was the Oct. 12 killing of an al-Qaida in Iraq leader by Iraqi army forces. That led to 14 Shiites being killed in the same area a few hours later. In apparent retribution, 26 Sunnis were killed the following day.
Caldwell said provincial, town and some tribal leaders came together on Oct. 15 to discuss how to stop the sectarian violence. Caldwell said that on Wednesday, there was a follow up meeting of "hundreds of people" came together to denounce the violence and discuss how to prevent it from taking hold in Balad.
Caldwell also confirmed that U.S. forces set free, at the request of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a sheik believed to be involved in death squad activities associated with the militia of Shi'ite cleric Muqtada Sadr. The sheik was captured during an early morning raid on Oct. 17 but was set free the next day after signing an agreement not to be involved in future acts of violence or suspicious activity, Caldwell said.
Sadr is one of the most powerful and troublesome of the Shiite leaders in the U.S. view, responsible for two violent uprisings against U.S. forces in 2004 and believed to be behind the murder of a rival cleric in 2003.
Maliki is the Shiite prime minister of Iraq. He is ostensibly trying to broker a peace between the Shiite factions vying for power in Iraq to shore up his own government, stop their militias' attacks on Sunnis, and also engage the Sunni population politically to hasten the end of the war.