Iraqi security forces have found the bodies of at least 20 more people in Baghdad Thursday, bringing the number of victims of apparent sectarian violence to more than 80 in the last two days. The spike in killings comes as Iraqi security and U.S.-led multinational forces continue military sweeps in the Iraqi capital in an effort to restore order.
The top U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, Major General William Caldwell, says the recent upsurge in violence is due to what he called "murder-executions."
Caldwell insists, however, that the situation is improving in neighborhoods the military has targeted as part of its month-long Operation Together Forward, a mission to restore security in Baghdad after months of sectarian violence.
Caldwell told reporters in Baghdad that U.S. forces have arrested a senior al-Qaida terrorist and personal associate of the group's leader in Iraq.
"The key outcome of these raids was the capture of over 70 suspected terrorists of which one was the personal associate of Abu Ayyub al-Masri," said General Caldwell. "This associate of al-Masri was the leader of assassination, kidnapping and IED [improvised explosive device] cells in Baghdad. He is known to have directly participated in numerous terrorist acts, including kidnappings and executions, terrorist acts and others contributing to sectarian violence throughout the city."
Caldwell says the man, who he did not identify, played a key role in al-Qaida's activities in Fallujah before a major battle between insurgents and U.S. forces in November 2004.
Meanwhile, Iraq's Deputy Prime Minister, Barham Salih, met with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon to discuss the sectarian violence and the continuing efforts to train more Iraqi security forces.
After the meeting Salih told reporters armed militias continue to be a serious threat to the authority of the Iraqi government.
"The military situation is a very, very serious challenge for Iraqis and for the Iraqi government," he said. "It touches upon the heart of the credibility of the Iraqi government and governing institutions. The prime minister has been adamant that this cannot be tolerated and that the state must be the sole holder of weapons as such."
The Iraqi deputy prime minister says the government will submit new legislation before parliament next month to disband the militias.