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Sadr's arrest may aggravate situation: Myers

April 16, 2004

BAGHDAD, April 15: The top US military officer took a close look at the situation in Iraq on Wednesday amid challenges to the US-led occupation by Sunni and Shia groups, and said capturing wanted cleric Moqtada al-Sadr could lead to a flare-up of violence.

Air Force General Richard Myers, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, talked for more than an hour after sundown at Baghdad International Airport with General John Abizaid, who oversees operations in Iraq. Earlier, Myers conferred with an Italian commander at a base near Tallil in southern Iraq.

"I just need to understand the situation better," Myers told reporters travelling with him aboard a huge C-17 cargo plane that took him to Iraq after meetings with the leaders of Gulf allies Kuwait and Bahrain. "I'll get that if I'm talking to the commanders on the ground."

A US defence official said Myers and Abizaid, the head of US Central Command, held wide-ranging talks about military operations. US forces are trying at the same time to find Sadr, whose militia led a rampage of violence in previously fairly calm Shia southern Iraq, and contain attacks by insurgents in Falluja and other parts of the Sunni Triangle.

Abizaid asked Pentagon leaders earlier this week to send more US troops to stem the violence. Myers made his unannounced visit a day after President George W. Bush vowed to stay the course in Iraq.

Myers told a news conference earlier in the day at a Kuwait airport that Sadr "has been marginalized, we think," and argued that he had scant following in the Iraqi Shia community.

US forces are massing around the Shia holy city Najaf, where Sadr is thought to be holed up. Myers said it would be up to US commanders on the ground to decide whether to enter the city to try to capture Sadr.

"It may well be that if he is captured, violence could increase for a bit," Myers said. "But I think it would be very temporary. But in the end you can't have an Iraq of the type that the Iraqi people say they want, when somebody like Sadr is there, working his own priorities."

MULTINATIONAL DIVISION: At Camp Mittica near Tallil, Myers met Italian Brigadier General Gian Marco Chiarini, who commands a brigade of about 2,900 Italians and about 600 troops from Romania, Portugal and other countries that is responsible for security in Nassiriya, about 375 km (235 miles) south of Baghdad.

Chatting with Italian army Captain Luigi Paolo Scollo about the abundance of rocket-propelled grenades in the hands of insurgents, Myers remarked "everybody in Iraq must have an RPG." Scollo responded "I think it must be a wedding gift."

Myers praised the performance of the Italian forces, which are part of a Polish-led multinational division responsible for security in south-central Iraq. Myers earlier met Kuwait's prime minister and defense officials amid concern in the emirate about growing instability in its larger neighbour to the north and fears in the region that Iraq could break apart along religious and ethnic lines.

US-led forces expelled Iraqi troops from Kuwait in the 1991 Gulf War, and the United States has about 60,000 troops in the emirate - 30,000 more than normal because of troop rotation in and out of Iraq. Myers spent the night at a base in the Baghdad area, where the explosion of incoming mortars or rockets could be heard in the distance. -Reuters