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Security forces in Baghdad have full control in only 40 percent of the city five months into the pacification campaign, a top American general said Saturday as U.S. troops began an offensive against two al-Qaida strongholds on the capital’s southern outskirts.
The military, meanwhile, reported that paratroopers had found the ID cards of two missing U.S. soldiers at an al-Qaida safe house 75 miles north of where they were captured last month, but there was no sign of the men. The house contained computers, video equipment and weapons.
Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno said American troops launched the offensive in Baghdad’s Arab Jabour and Salman Pac neighborhoods Friday night. It was the first time in three years that U.S. soldiers entered those areas, where al-Qaida militants build car bombs and launch Katyusha rockets at American bases and Shiite Muslim neighborhoods.
The overall commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, said during a news conference with visiting Defense Secretary Robert Gates that the operation would put troops into key al-Qaida-held areas surrounding Baghdad.
Odierno said there was a long way to go in retaking the city from Shiite Muslim militias, Sunni Arab insurgents and al-Qaida terrorists. He said only about “40 percent is really very safe on a routine basis” â€” with about 30 percent lacking control and a further 30 percent suffering “a high level of violence.”
The U.S. ground forces commander discussed the new offensive and the security situation in an interview with two reporters as he visited an American outpost near the main market in the capital’s southern Dora district, a major Sunni Arab stronghold.
“There’s about 30 percent of the city that needs work, like here in Dora and the surrounding areas,” Odierno said. “Those are the areas that we consider to be the hot spots, which usually have a Sunni-Shiite fault line, and also areas where al-Qaida has decided to make a stand.”
With Baghdad and Basra â€” the country’s second largest city and gateway to the Persian Gulf â€” under curfew, violent deaths were down dramatically Saturday. Only three people were reported to have been killed or found dead in sectarian violence.
That did not include the discovery of 13 bodies of a tae kwon do team kidnapped last year in western Iraq while driving to a training camp in neighboring Jordan. The bodies were found 65 miles west of Ramadi, police and hospital officials said.
The U.S. military revealed that identification cards belonging to the two missing soldiers were found June 9 near Samarra but said no one was in the safe house. Troops approaching the building came under fire from nearby trees, suffering two wounded before air support intervened, the statement said.
Spc. Alex R. Jimenez and Pvt. Byron Fouty were snatched in a raid on their 10th Mountain Division unit on May 12 near Youssifiyah. The body of a third soldier taken in the raid, Pfc. Joseph Anzack Jr., was found floating in the Euphrates River. Four other U.S. soldiers and an Iraqi translator were killed in the May 12 ambush.
The Islamic State of Iraq, a front group for al-Qaida, claimed in a video posted on the Internet this month that all three missing soldiers were killed and buried. The militants showed images of the military IDs of Jimenez, 25, of Lawrence, Mass., and Fouty, 19, of Waterford, Mich., but offered no proof they were dead.
Fouty’s stepfather found hope in the ID find. “I take it as they keep moving him, and that he’s alive,” Gordon Dibler Jr. said. “I was happy that they found something tangible. I’m going to keep hoping.”
Wendy Luzon, a friend of the Jimenez family, had a similar response. “It’s better than not getting any news for weeks,” she said. “Getting this news is something good. We keep hoping that he’s alive. We have nothing that tells us differently.”
The military announced that a U.S. soldier was killed by a roadside bomb in southern Baghdad and an Ohio National Guard pilot died when his F-16 fighter crashed shortly after takeoff from Balad Air Base in central Iraq. The two deaths Friday raised to at least 3,522 the number of U.S. personnel who have died since the Iraq war began in March 2003, according to an AP count.
In Baghdad, aides to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki told The Associated Press that talks Saturday between the U.S. defense secretary and the Iraqi leader were difficult.
Two top advisers to the prime minister said al-Maliki, a Shiite, objected vigorously to the new U.S. policy of arming and training Sunni militants in the fight against al-Qaida.
A third said Gates told al-Maliki that political and legislative action sought by the U.S., including a new law to share oil revenues among all Iraqis, must be complete by September when the defense secretary has to report to Congress on progress in Iraq.
Gates also met with President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, and expressed concern that the security situation nationwide might be spiraling out of control, a presidential aide said.
All the Iraqi officials agreed to discuss the talks only if not quoted by name because they were not authorized to release details. They said they were briefed on the talks by officials who attended the meetings.
The top U.S. commander in the Middle East, Adm. William Fallon, delivered a similar message to Iraqi leaders on June 10, and John Negroponte, the No. 2 State Department official, reinforced it in a visit at midweek.
Underscoring the challenges, Gates arrived in Baghdad on Friday to find a city all but shut down by a security lockdown imposed after the bombing of an important Shiite shrine north of the city. The explosion at the Askariya shrine in Samarra destroyed the mosque’s minarets and prompted at least two retaliatory attacks â€” both in southern Iraq.
On Saturday, attackers blew up the al-Ashrah al-Mubashra mosque in Basra at dawn, residents in nearby houses said. As they were leaving, the bombers wrote graffiti on the complex’s outer wall with the names of revered Shiite saints, witnesses said. No injuries were reported.
Associated Press correspondent Qassim Abdul-Zahra contributed to this report.