Upturn in violence puts pressure on coalition

10 September 2004
Peace is so far holding in the city of Najaf, following the ceasefire between supporters of Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and the interim government, with negotiations ongoing over the details of the truce. However, as many members of Al-Sadr's Mehdi army returned to their homes in the Sadr City district of Baghdad, fighting returned to the area, while it has also been a violent week elsewhere in the country. The American death toll passed a grim milestone in early September.

A series of incidents began in the northern city of Kirkuk, when a suicide car bomb killed more than a dozen Iraqis outside a police academy on 4 September. Targeting the fledgling local security services has been a favourite tactic of insurgents. Two days later, a bomb in Fallujah killed seven American marines and two Iraqis, prompting a swift response from the US. Air strikes were launched against the restive northern town on 7 September, which the US military claimed caused the death of about 100 rebels.

On the same day, clashes erupted between US troops and residents in Sadr City, resulting in dozens of fatalities. Al-Sadr reported that the incident was precipitated by a heavy-handed US incursion and said that many of those resisting were not members of his militia. Also in the capital, the governor of Baghdad narrowly survived an assassination attempt when his convoy came under fire.

The upturn in violence took the death toll among US troops past the symbolic 1,000 mark on 7 September. The majority of these have come since President Bush's aircraft carrier appearance on 1 May 2003, essentially to declare victory and pronounce an end to major combat operations. Bush gave a televised address to mark the occasion, as did the Democrat contender for the presidency, John Kerry. Kerry chose his words carefully, treading the fine line between exploiting the deaths and criticising his opponent's policy. He spoke about how the scale of the sacrifice emphasised the importance of making the 'right decisions' on Iraq. The invasion and subsequent unrest have taken a far heavier toll among Iraqis themselves. An independent estimate puts the number killed at more than 11,000.

Pentagon officials also talked publicly about the situation, stressing the challenges facing the government of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, with insurgents in the ascendant in large swathes of the country. 'The prime minister and his team fully understand that it is important that there should not be areas of the country that are controlled by terrorists,' said Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on 7 September. Allawi's tactic so far has been to attempt to separate those opponents who can be bargained with from the diehards. Eager to begin bringing soldiers home, Rumsfeld also spoke of the importance of training local security forces. 'Capabilities are still uneven, but they're improving as we arm and equip them better,' he said.

Washington is not the only government under pressure over the loss of its civilians. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi - a staunch supporter of the war, who dispatched one of the largest contingents of coalition troops - is also coming under intense domestic criticism. Militants have targeted Italian civilians on several occasions and, in the latest incident, two female Italian aid workers were taken hostage by a group calling itself Ansar al-Zawahiri. Two French journalists remain in captivity, having been seized in late August. However, France is using all its sway in the Arab world to have the men freed. The ban on the wearing of Muslim headscarves in French schools - the focus of the kidnappers' demands - came into force without incident in early September.

The UN is also expressing concern at the upturn in lawlessness and violence. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan warned the Security Council in a report submitted on 7 September that if the trend continued, planned elections in

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