US mounts raid on rebels, Iraqi leaders deadlocked
BAGHDAD, Mar 16: US forces launched a major offensive against insurgents today, while Iraq's new parliament held only a brief first session as deadlock remained over forming a broad government to avert any slide to civil war.
The offensive against guerrillas north of Baghdad was termed by the US military in Iraq as the biggest air assault since the 2003 US-led invasion and occurred amid US concern about the political paralysis and mounting sectarian bloodshed.
A US military statement said the operation near Samarra, 100 km (60 miles) from Baghdad, involved more than 1,500 Iraqi and US troops, 50 warplanes and 200 armoured vehicles.
But a Pentagon official, who asked not to be named, sought to play down the scale of the operation against the insurgents, who gather their support from the minority Sunni Arab community, once dominant under Saddam Hussein.
''It's not precision bombs and things like that,'' the official said in Washington. Another said most of the aircraft involved were Blackhawk troop-carrying helicopters.
Four village areas near Samarra -- where an alleged al Qaeda bomb destroyed a Shi'ite Muslim shrine last month, triggering weeks of sectarian bloodshed -- had been surrounded by Iraqi and US troops since Wednesday, Iraqi military sources said.
The US military said weapons had been found in ''Operation Swarmer'' and that the mission would last for several days.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari said the operation was proof of the increasing capability of Iraqi troops and was designed to ''root out'' insurgents.
The parliamentary sesssion, which might have been a high point of a US-backed process that began with the invasion to overthrow Saddam, was reduced to 20 minutes of protocol that did little but meet a constitutional deadline.
''It is just something we have to get off our backs,'' a top parliamentarian said on condition of anonymity. ''Then we'll go and sit at the negotiating table and yell at each other.'' With no agreement among Shi'ites, Sunnis, Kurds and others on the posts of speaker, president, prime minister or cabinet members, no substantive business can be conducted in parliament.
Even the keynote address by Adnan Pachachi, the oldest member and acting speaker, was cut short by a powerful Shi'ite Islamist leader when Pachachi, a secular Sunni, launched into a criticism of ''sectarian domination'' -- a clear attack on the past year's rule by the Shi'ite-led interim government.
''We have to tell the world there will be no civil war among the Iraqi people. The risk is there,'' the patrician Pachachi, foreign minister in the 1960s, told the 275-seat chamber in Baghdad's fortified Green Zone government compound.
Reliable security forces were the top priority, he said.
A curfew has curbed sectarian violence that has killed hundreds in the capital in the past three weeks.
Kurds in the north stormed and destroyed a memorial to a 1988 gas attack in the town of Halabja during 18th anniversary ceremonies. Some 5,000 people were killed in the attack, blamed on Saddam.
One person was killed and eight were wounded when Kurdish forces fired on protesters, who were complaining about a lack of funding for local services in the town.
Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, whose nomination by fellow Shi'ites to a second term is blocking any agreement with Kurds, Sunnis and secular leaders, said he had the right as the elected choice of the biggest group to hang on to his job.
''I did not get here as part of a deal so I cannot be pushed aside as part of a deal,'' Jaafari told Reuters. He earlier told a news conference: ''If my people ask me to step aside I will.'' Opposition to Jaafari from rivals within the Shi'ite Alliance could yet sink him, politicians in other blocs say.
Jaafari won an internal ballot by a single vote last month.
Critics blame him for failures in security and the economy.
''The problem is the Alliance is divided,'' a senior Alliance official said. ''This has weakened the Alliance position.'' Rida Jawad al-Takki, an official of SCIRI, the main rival to Jaafari's Dawa party in the Alliance, said steps would be taken in the next two days to resolve the dispute.
Technically the first session was not adjourned, a legal ploy that gives parliament time to elect a speaker.
Once the speaker is chosen, the new constitution sets a 30-day timetable for forming a government, though there is a dispute over whether this should apply to the first parliament.
The United States is hoping for a deal soon that produces stability and will let it bring home its 133,000 troops.