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Iraqi and American military officials hold a news conference Wednesday at Camp Liberty, Iraq, to praise the the results of an operation, which aimed to purge insurgents from Baghdad neighborhoods.

Iraqi and American military officials hold a news conference Wednesday at Camp Liberty, Iraq, to praise the the results of an operation, which aimed to purge insurgents from Baghdad neighborhoods. (Anita Powell / S&S)

CAMP LIBERTY, Iraq — Top Iraqi and American military officials met Wednesday to praise the outcome of a recent operation to purge insurgents from some of Baghdad’s roughest neighborhoods.

Col. Michael Shields, commander of the Fort Wainwright, Alaska-based 172nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, said the 10-day mission, dubbed Operation Together Forward, was well-received by residents.

Fifteen large weapons caches were uncovered — one of them in a local mosque — and murders and sectarian attacks were drastically reduced, he said.

“We cleared 20,000 buildings without incident, capturing several personnel and weapons,” he said.

Shields said more than 25 people were arrested in the operation. However, he conceded that it was possible that the Iraqi government’s decision to advertise the operation in advance may have allowed insurgents to escape the dragnet.

“Could some individuals have fled the area? Of course,” he said. “It’s certainly a potential reality that many high-level leaders may have moved out of the area before the operation started.”

Shields could not say whether any of those arrested were part of Baghdad’s infamous death squads or militias.

“We’re not focused on what organization they’re from,” he said. “We’re focused on the threat they pose to the people.”

Iraqi army Brig. Gen. Abdul Jaleel Kahlaiaf said his areas in the northwestern part of Baghdad seem to have been purged of militia members.

“I can assure you that for the past several days, we have not seen any member of a militia in any of my [areas of operation],” he said in Arabic.

Jaleel added that his forces could capably maintain the peace in the future — and, in fact, had done so before.

“Ghazaliya area, before the arrival of the American forces, we had the security condition under control,” he said, drawing puzzled looks from uniformed Americans and Iraqis in the audience.

Iraqi National Police commander Lt. Col. Ali said that the neighborhoods he patrols — Ghazaliya and Shulla — have much improved since the operation began.

“Seventy-five to 80 percent we accomplished the mission, in my opinion,” he said in Arabic.

So what do Baghdadis think? Residents of Shulla, a hardscrabble Shiite area, said Tuesday night that they were pleased with the results of the operation.

“Right now it’s better,” said 17-year-old Ahmed Abid Alridah Al Fadl, in English. “Before, three to four people were every day getting murdered.”

Other residents profusely thanked a passing American patrol — although several also took the opportunity to ask for money, medical supplies or help releasing detainees.

However, several Iraqi media workers in the audience of Wednesday’s press conference — who declined to be identified, for safety reasons — said Iraqis are skeptical of the mission’s success, and the prospect of peace in Baghdad.

“Many Iraqis wish Saddam (Hussein) would come back to power,” said one man, who is half-Sunni, half-Shiite, in English. “Everything is bad now. Before, in 2003, no one was being killed in the streets. But now, many wish Saddam would come back.”

Another man, who is Shiite, said he did not think the former dictator would be welcomed back to power — after all, he said, Saddam killed two of his brothers.

However, he said, in Arabic, “Saddam’s time is better than this time.”

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