BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Three Iraqi army brigades from the Kurdish north and the Shi'ite south will be brought in for a security crackdown in Baghdad seen as central to hopes of averting civil war, a senior Iraqi official said on Sunday.
Sami al-Askari, an adviser to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, said the extra troops were part of the plan which foresees Iraqi forces taking responsibility for inner Baghdad while U.S.-led multinational forces will be in charge of the surrounding areas.
Maliki announced the plan on Saturday, vowing to crush illegal armed groups "regardless of sect or politics" -- suggesting he may be ready to tackle militias loyal to his fellow Shi'ites, a key demand of Washington and the once dominant Sunni Arab minority.
The announcement comes as U.S. President George W. Bush conducts a reshuffle of commanders and diplomats in Iraq and prepares to unveil a new strategy next week that officials say may include a proposal to add 20,000 U.S. troops in Baghdad.
Iraqi brigades number around 1,200 soldiers.
Askari said two from the north, mainly Kurdish soldiers, and one from the Shi'ite south would come to Baghdad to take part in the operation which aims to clear areas that are "bases for terrorist groups" and to station troops there permanently to hold them in the long term.
When U.S. forces launched a major operation in Baghdad in the summer, their efforts were hampered as they were not able to hold areas that had been cleared. Some Iraqi army units have refused in the past to be deployed to combat zones, and sectarian loyalties have proved hard to overcome.
Askari said he was confident the additional three brigades would be in place soon, and said the government was also determined to crack down on infiltration by militias in the armed forces.
"There's a plan alongside this security plan to try to clear the ministry of interior and defence ministry of these elements," he said. "It takes time because it's not an easy task ... (but) without it the people will not trust the security forces."
Home to more than one Iraqi in four and with a rich mix of communities, Baghdad has seen heavy bloodshed.
CRACKDOWN ON MILITIAS
Senior Shi'ite politicians told Reuters last month that U.S. and Iraqi forces planned a limited offensive against the Mehdi Army militia of Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, blamed by U.S. commanders and many Sunnis for much of the violence.
Sadr, whose supporters played a key role in Maliki's appointment as a compromise prime minister in April, denies any such involvement. Maliki has repeatedly rejected criticism that he has not confronted the Mehdi Army before now, saying the Shi'ite armed groups can be tamed through political dialogue.
A U.S. television report said Defense Secretary Robert Gates had recommended a buildup of 10,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, with an option of doubling that to 20,000 by spring. The Pentagon and the White House declined to comment on the report.
U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and General George Casey, both of whom are to be replaced, said in a joint statement that U.S. forces were ready to help implement the plan for Baghdad "as determined by Iraqi and coalition field commanders".
Bush's Democratic opponents, who took control of Congress last week, question the need to increase troop numbers. More than 3,000 Americans have died in Iraq since the 2003 invasion and many voters favour a rapid withdrawal as U.S. forces find themselves increasingly caught in the sectarian crossfire.
The U.S. military urged Maliki last week to reach out to the disaffected Sunni minority after the sectarian tension generated by his decision to rush through the execution of Saddam Hussein and by an Internet video showing pro-Sadr officials taunting Saddam on the gallows.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Saturday urged a stay of executions in Iraq.
Ban's chief of staff, Vijay Nambiar, wrote to the Iraqi authorities urging "restraint by the government of Iraq in the execution of death sentences imposed by the Iraqi High Tribunal."
Askari and a senior source in the prosecution, which by law must have a representative at the hanging, said on Sunday no date had been set for the hanging of Saddam's half-brother Barzan al-Tikriti and a former judge.