Iraq relies less on outside troops to stifle violence

By Alexandra Zavis The Associated Press

BAGHDAD – Scorched pavement, destroyed shops, burned out cars and four men shot in the head then hanged from electricity pylons – victims of revenge killings – awaited Shiite residents emerging from their homes yesterday in Baghdad’s Sadr City slum.

The scene, although gruesome, was not what many had feared: that deadly explosions the previous night in Sadr City would ignite all-out civil war, pitting majority Shiites against minority Sunnis.

Two car bombers and four mortar rounds shattered shops and market stalls at nightfall Sunday when residents were buying groceries for their evening meal. At least 58 people were killed and more than 200 wounded.

A key to yesterday’s relative peace was anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s refusal to be provoked. With thousands of his Mahdi Army militiamen ready to fight, the Shiite leader called for calm and national unity.

It was the second time in less than three weeks that Iraqis stood at the precipice of civil war but pulled back.

Britain, the United States’ largest military partner in Iraq, showed its confidence yesterday by announcing a 10 percent – about 800-troop – reduction by May.

“This is a significant reduction which is based largely on the ability of the Iraqis themselves to participate and defend themselves against terrorism, but there is a long, long way to go,” British Defense Secretary John Reid said in London.

Washington hopes to begin withdrawing some of its troops by this summer if a new Iraqi government is in place and judged sufficiently in control. But sectarian violence and political bickering has stalled the process.

Iraq’s new parliament will convene for the first time Thursday, three months after it was elected, to begin the process of forming the next government.

Bomb blasts and shootings in Baghdad and north of the capital, many of them targeting Iraqi police patrols, killed at least 15 people yesterday and wounded more than 40.

They included a U.S. soldier who died in a roadside bombing, the military said. A U.S. Marine was reported killed Sunday in insurgent-plagued Anbar province.