US general in Iraq warns of upsurge in violence

 

The top US general in Iraq warned today of an upsurge in attacks in the months before Washington hands over sovereignty in June, and urged Iraqis to help find Saddam Hussein, whom he called a needle in a haystack.

Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez told a news conference that US forces would keep up their offensive against Iraqi insurgents, using any weapon at their disposal.

"We expect to see an increase in violence as we move forward towards sovereignty at the end of June. We're going to have some periods where there will be an increase in violence in the coming months," General Sanchez said.

He said insurgents would seek to derail the handover of power, partly by attacking the political process itself.

Under an accelerated plan unveiled last month, the United States will hand over full sovereignty to a transitional Iraqi government at the end of June. That government will be chosen by Iraqis selected in May through a series of nationwide caucuses.

"Their focus will be...conducting some kind of operations against the economic and political sectors primarily, while maintaining pressure on the military if they are to derail the process. We're prepared for that," General Sanchez said.

Asked about the elusive former Iraqi president, on the run with a $25 million bounty on his head, General Sanchez appealed for ordinary Iraqis to help find him.

"In terms of the search for Saddam - the needle in the haystack - clearly we have not found the right haystack," General Sanchez said with a smile.

"We're all focused on trying to find this needle out there, and by God it's a hard problem, and you all have to help me, and the Iraqi people have to help us try to get Saddam."

General Sanchez said it was critical to catch Saddam to show Iraqis he was not coming back. Catching or killing Saddam would have an impact on the level of violence, but not end it, he said. The United States blames Saddam loyalists and foreign Islamic fighters for attacks on US-led occupation forces and Iraqis seen supporting them, such as the police.

General Sanchez said offensive operations launched in November would continue, although he gave no details. He said on Saturday that attacks on occupation forces had dropped in recent weeks, to around 20 a day from a peak of 50.

General Sanchez also said authorities had decided to increase the size of an Iraqi paramilitary force working with US troops to 36 battalions, or around 40,000 personnel. The Iraq Civil Defense Corp (ICDC) currently has around 12,500 personnel.