BAGHDAD -- Iraq's prime minister set in motion the biggest security crackdown in Baghdad since the US-led invasion, with 75,000 Iraqi and US troops to deploy across the strife-prone capital starting today.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki also announced plans for an extended curfew and a weapons ban, saying he would show ``no mercy" to terrorists six days after Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, was killed in a US air strike northeast of Baghdad. The government did not say how long the crackdown would last.
The announcement was made as radical anti-US cleric Muqtada al-Sadr planned a demonstration today in Baghdad to protest President Bush's surprise visit to the capital.
Bush's visit yesterday was seen by many as a boost for Maliki, who is seeking to build momentum after Zarqawi's death and the appointment of defense and interior ministers following weeks of political stalemate.
Zarqawi's successor, identified by the nom de guerre Abu Hamza al-Muhajer, vowed to defeat ``crusaders and Shi'ites" in Iraq and said ``holy warriors" in the country were stronger than ever, according to an Internet statement posted yesterday, the first from the new leader.
Underlining the threat, explosions struck oil-rich Kirkuk, killing at least 16 people. Kirkuk police Brigadier General Sarhad Qader said the attacks in the city 180 miles north of Baghdad were believed to be ``a reaction to avenge the killing of Zarqawi."
Al Qaeda in Iraq has been increasingly focusing its attacks on Baghdad rather than on US targets in western Iraq.
Security officials said 75,000 Iraqi and multinational forces would be deployed throughout Baghdad today, securing roads leading in and out of the city, establishing more checkpoints, launching raids against insurgent hideouts, and calling in air strikes if necessary.
``Baghdad is divided according to geographical area, and we know the Al Qaeda leaders in each area," said Major General Mahdi al-Gharrawi, the commander of public order forces under the Interior Ministry.
The operation, to be launched at 6 a.m. today, was to be the biggest of its kind in Baghdad since the United States handed over sovereignty to Iraq in June 2004, Gharrawi said.
Gharrawi warned that insurgents were likely to step up their attacks.
``We are expecting clashes will erupt in the predominantly Sunni areas," he said. ``The terrorists will escalate their violence especially during the first week as revenge for the killing of Zarqawi."
Civilians have also expressed concern about random violence and detentions by Iraqi forces, especially the police, which are widely believed to have been infiltrated by sectarian death squads.
Gharrawi said there were plans for a single uniform to distinguish legitimate forces .
In the coming days, ``There will be a special uniform with special badges to be put on the vehicles as a sign that it belongs to our forces," he said.
Maliki's plan also includes a ban on personal weapons and the implementation of a 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew, which hitherto had begun at 11 p.m. The new curfew was expected to begin Friday.
Maliki said during his news conference that the plan ``will provide security and confront the terrorism and . . . enable Iraqis to live in peace in Baghdad."
``The raids during this plan will be very tough . . . because there will be no mercy toward those who show no mercy to our people," he said in a statement.
The attacks in Kirkuk began at 7:45 a.m. when a parked car containing a bomb exploded near a police patrol in the city center, killing 10 people, including two policemen, Brigadier General Sarhat Qadir said. Nine people were wounded.
Some 30 minutes later, guards fired on a suspected suicide car bomber trying to pass through a checkpoint at the police directorate. The car exploded, killing five people, including two policemen, and wounding six, Qadir said.
Another suspected suicide car bomber in Kirkuk tried to hit a Kurdish political office at 8:30 a.m., but guards opened fire on the car, and it exploded, police Colonel Taieb Taha said. Three civilians were wounded.
A suicide car bomber targeted a police patrol south of Kirkuk more than an hour later near an institute for the disabled. The explosion killed a driver nearby and wounded six, Qadir said.
At least 26 other violent deaths were reported yesterday.
Major General Abdul-Aziz Mohammed, Defense Ministry spokesman, said 263 civilians were killed and 301 were wounded in 761 attacks from Friday to Saturday, while 78 terror suspects died and 584 were detained.