General David Petraeus, the leading US military commander in Iraq, speaking after meeting Lieutenant-General Raymond Odierno, his number two, and Gates on Saturday said the US military launched a large offense security operation in Baghdad in the last 24 hours.

 

The general said they will put forces into key areas surrounding Baghdad that, according to intelligence, al-Qaida is using to base some of it car bomb operations.

Gates is due to meet al-Maliki and other Iraqi leaders later in the day.

 

Gates is the third senior US official to visit Baghdad this week, following after John Negroponte, the US deputy secretary of state, and Admiral William Fallon, the US commander in the Middle East.

 

Seeking 'Iraqi progress'

 

Gates said he would echo their message to al-Maliki and other Iraqi leaders to speed up the passage through parliament of legislation that includes laws on distributing oil revenues, control of regional oil fields and holding provincial elections.

 

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"It is the same message that I have been delivering since December, that our troops are buying them time to pursue reconciliation, that frankly we are disappointed with the progress so far," he said.

 

The main Iraqi political blocs have so far shown reluctance to compromise on any of the key issues.
The country has been locked in a cycle of violence that many fear is moving towards all-out civil war.

 

The second bombing of al-Askari mosque in Samarra this week has alarmed US officials, who fear it could derail reconciliation efforts and trigger a repeat of the wave of sectarian violence that was unleashed by the first attack in February 2006, killing tens of thousands.

 

A four-day curfew in Baghdad has largely prevented retaliatory attacks in the capital, although a number of Sunni mosques have been torched or blown up elsewhere.

 

In the latest attack, a mosque in the southern city of Basra was demolished in an explosion on Saturday, police said.

 

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's most senior Shia cleric, condemned the attacks in Basra and called for a halt to such violence.

 

Mixed results

 

George Bush, the US president, has sent an extra 30,000 soldiers to Iraq, mainly to secure Baghdad, boosting troop levels to 160,000 despite opposition from the Democratic-controlled US congress, which wants to start bringing soldiers home.

 

Petraeus said the extra soldiers now in the capital allow him to send operations for the first time into "a number of areas around Baghdad, in particular to go into areas that were sanctuaries in the past of al-Qaida."

 

The remains of 13 members of an
Iraq taekwondo team [AFP]
The Baghdad security plan was launched in mid-February and has had mixed results. It has been costly in the lives of US soldiers, whose increased presence on the streets of the capital have made them more vulnerable to roadside bombs.

 

In its quarterly report on Iraq this week, the Pentagon said it was too soon to assess the crackdown. While violence was down in Baghdad, the overall level in Iraq was unchanged as armed groups had simply moved their bases outside the capital, it said.

 

Petraeus and Ryan Crocker, the US ambassador to Iraq, are due to make an assessment in September on whether the US troop build-up is succeeding in taming the rampant violence.

 

Meanwhile, the remains of 13 members of an Iraqi taekwondo team kidnapped last year have been found in western Iraq, police and hospital officials said on Saturday.

 

The team had been driving to a training camp in Jordan in May 2006 when their convoy was stopped and all 15 athletes were abducted along a road between the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi, in Anbar province.

 

The fate of the other two members was not known.