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Signs point toward Iraq crackdown

Many complain operation is long overdue

Jassim Abdul Rahman carried his daughter Mariam as he walked over the rubble of his destroyed house in Baghdad yesterday. A mortar round landed on his house Sunday morning, killing his wife, Nihad Hameed. (Khalid Mohammed/Associated Press)

BAGHDAD -- Bombings and mortar attacks killed dozens across Baghdad yesterday as Iraqi troops set up new checkpoints and an Iraqi general took command -- indications that the much-awaited operation to restore peace to the capital is gearing up nearly a month after it was announced.

With little sign of an end to the carnage, many Iraqis have begun complaining that the security drive has been too slow in starting, allowing extremists free rein to launch attacks that have killed nearly 1,000 in the past week.

Yesterday's death toll supported their frustration. At least 74 people were killed or found dead across the country -- all but seven of them in Baghdad.

Iraqi politicians -- Shi'ite and Sunni alike -- urged the government to speed up implementation of the plan, which President Bush announced Jan. 11. The operation would put thousands of US and Iraqi troops on the street to protect civilians against sectarian bombers and death squads.

In a sign that the crackdown is near, Iraqi troops manned a major new checkpoint yesterday at the northern gate to Baghdad, searching cars and trucks heading to and from Sunni insurgent areas to the north. Soldiers and police said the checkpoint was set up as part of the security plan.

Elsewhere, Rahim al-Daraji, a senior official in Sadr City, said police were moving into the capital's sprawling Shi'ite slum, stronghold of the notorious Mahdi Army militia.

And Lieutenant General Abboud Gambar, who will direct the operation, took charge of his still-unfinished command center yesterday in a former Saddam Hussein palace inside the American-controlled Green Zone.

Gambar, who was taken prisoner by US troops in the 1991 Gulf War, will have two Iraqi deputies, one on each side of the Tigris River, which flows through the center of the capital. The city will be divided into nine districts, each with as many as 600 US soldiers to back up Iraqi troops who will take the lead in the security drive.

In announcing the plan, Bush said he was sending 21,500 additional American troops mostly to Baghdad in what is widely seen as a last chance to quell the sectarian violence ravaging the capital and surrounding regions.

About 3,000 paratroopers from the Second Brigade of the 82 d Airborne Division arrived in Iraq in late January and were expected to begin operations in the coming days. But the last of the US reinforcements are due in May.

With so much at stake, US commanders have moved methodically to plan the operation and assemble the force, eager to avoid the mistakes that accompanied two failed crackdowns last year.

The US military considers the operation to have been under way ever since Bush signed the order last month to start moving troops to Iraq.

US officers offered assurances that once the operation gets rolling, Iraqis will begin to see a difference.

"It's going to be much more than this city has ever seen and it's going to be a rolling surge," Colonel Douglass Heckman, the senior adviser to the Ninth Iraqi Army Division, said of the operation.

Yesterday's slaughter killed 15 people in back-to-back car bombings at a gasoline station in Sadiyah, a mostly Sunni neighborhood of southwestern Baghdad, police said.

Eight people were killed when a bomb exploded in a garbage can in a Sunni enclave in central Baghdad, according to police.

Four mortar shells exploded around sundown in a Shi'ite part of Dora, killing seven people, police said.

The US military reported the deaths of two American soldiers, killed Sunday north of Baghdad.