Ring of steel to fall around Baghdad

Iraq announced plans to deploy 40,000 police and soldiers in the capital Baghdad and ring the city with hundreds of checkpoints “like a bracelet” in the largest show of Iraqi force since the fall of Saddam Hussein.

Iraq announced plans to deploy 40,000 police and soldiers in the capital Baghdad and ring the city with hundreds of checkpoints “like a bracelet” in the largest show of Iraqi force since the fall of Saddam Hussein.

Meanwhile, The US military said one of its helicopters was shot down north of Baghdad, killing two soldiers on board. Another landed safely after being damaged by small arms fire.

An announcement said that the two Task Force Liberty helicopters received small arms fire yesterday while conducting operations in support of coalition forces near Baqouba 35 miles northeast of Baghdad.

It is a reminder of the difficulty Iraqi security forces face in stopping insurgent attacks, adding to violence that claimed at least 15 lives yesterday in Baghdad.

In Baghdad, Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari said that next week’s planned crackdown, dubbed Operation Lightning, was designed “to restore the initiative to the government.” Insurgents have killed more than 620 people since his government was announced on April 28.

“We will establish, with God’s help, an impenetrable blockade surrounding Baghdad like a bracelet surrounds a wrist,” Defence Minister Saadoun al-Duleimi said.

Iraqi authorities did not say how long the crackdown would last, and it was uncertain if the Iraq security services are capable of mounting a sustained operation.

American forces will back the Iraqis with logistical aid and air cover during Operation Lightning, according to the US military.

Northwest of Baghdad, in the city of Haditha, more than 1,000 US troops continued a sweep for insurgents responsible for attacks against coalition troops. They ordered at least one airstrike yesterday against a suspected militant position. At least 11 insurgents and one Marine have been killed since Operation New Market began on Wednesday.

Some of the insurgents in Haditha are believed loyal to Iraq’s most wanted militant, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, whose fate has been the subject of intense discussions this week from Baghdad to the Internet to Washington.

Confusion surrounded the fate of al-Zarqawi yesterday amid reports he had been wounded.

One US defence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that the military’s most credible sources lean toward the idea that al-Zarqawi is injured or wounded, not dead.

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