BAGHDAD (Reuters) - The top U.S. general in the Middle East praised a major security clampdown in Baghdad on Thursday and said Iraq was far from civil war.
On a day when three car bombs and two roadside bombs killed four people and wounded 24 in the capital, General John Abizaid told reporters: "I think there has been great progress on the security front in Baghdad recently. We are very optimistic that the situation will stabilise."
The U.S. military has sent reinforcements to Baghdad to help the government take back the streets from sectarian militias and death squads, who have been blamed for the killing of thousands in violence that has raised fears of civil war.
Abizaid, who met General John Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said comments he made earlier this month before the U.S. Senate in which he said the sectarian violence in Iraq was the worst he had seen had been misrepresented.
"I never said that Iraq was one foot from civil war. It is amazing how you say things sometimes and they get reported differently. I believe there is danger of civil war in Iraq, but only a danger. I think Iraq is far from it."
U.S. commanders have said the clampdown -- which has put an additional 12,000 U.S. and Iraqi forces on the city's streets -- has produced a sharp decline in violence in some deadly Sunni and Shi'ite neighbourhoods.
"THE BATTLE OF BAGHDAD"
In an opinion piece published in the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad repeated statements made by Iraqi and U.S. leaders that the operation to pacify Baghdad was a make-or-break mission.
"The battle of Baghdad will determine the future of Iraq, which will itself go a long way to determining the future of the world's most vital region," Khalilzad wrote.
Khalilzad said that in July Baghdad experienced "a 10 percent increase over the already high monthly average" of violent incidents, leaving 2,100 people dead.
He said 77 percent of the casualties were the result of sectarian violence, "giving rise to fears of an impending civil war in Iraq".
Violence claimed more lives on Thursday, and the U.S. military announced that two U.S. soldiers had been killed in Baghdad in the last 48 hours.
A car driven by a suicide bomber killed two civilians in the religiously mixed eastern neighbourhood of New Baghdad and wounded nine people, including two policemen.
Another car bomb targeting a police patrol in the Sunni neighbourhood of Adhamiya killed two civilians, police said.
An Interior Ministry spokesman denied on Thursday media reports that the minister had escaped an assassination attempt on Wednesday in the religiously mixed district of Doura.
The spokesman said an explosion had occurred in an area in Doura 10 minutes after an Interior Ministry motorcade had driven past but that the minister had not been present.
In the south, British troops abandoned their base in Maysan province, which had been under almost nightly attack, and prepared to head deep into the marshlands along the Iranian border to hunt gun smugglers.
The 600 soldiers will form a highly mobile unit travelling in stripped-down Land Rovers armed with heavy machine guns and will have no permanent base.
U.S. and British officials have accused Iran of arming Shi'ite militias blamed for much of the sectarian violence, as well as for attacks on foreign troops.
(Additional reporting by Ross Colvin)