BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq announced plans on Tuesday to close its borders with Iran and Syria and lengthen a night curfew on vehicles in new emergency measures to try to curb unrelenting violence in Baghdad.
The measures were unveiled during another day of bloodshed in the capital in which a suicide bomber blew up a truck rigged with explosives near a Baghdad college, killing 18 people just a day after bomb blasts ripped apart two crowded city markets.
They are the clearest sign yet from Shi’ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki that an offensive against militants who are tearing Iraq apart is picking up pace.
Speaking on Iraqiya state television, the official in charge of the crackdown, Lieutenant-General Abboud Qanbar, said the borders with Iran and Syria would be shut for 72 hours.
He did not say when, but a government official said an announcement would be made when the frontiers had been closed.
Qanbar said other measures included confiscating illegal weapons and explosives, imposing restrictions on the movement of vehicles and individuals and setting up checkpoints in the city.
In addition, “all patrols of the ministries of defense and interior would have to identify themselves, otherwise security forces will deal with them as outlaw forces”, he said.
U.S. officials and Sunni Arab leaders have accused the Shi’ite-controlled interior ministry, which oversees the police, of being infiltrated with Shi’ite militias who roam the city in unmarked vehicles and wear police-style uniforms.
The new measures are on top of emergency powers already granted to Maliki by parliament.
U.S. military officials say the Baghdad crackdown is in its early stages and that it will take months to peak.
Previous attempts to halt bombings and death squad killings in the capital have failed.
Indeed, critics say it is too little, too late, while weary Iraqis question whether the plan can end the threat of all-out civil war between majority Shi’ites and minority Sunni Arabs.
Qanbar gave no reason for the border moves, but American and Iraqi officials have accused Syria of not doing enough to stop alleged foreign fighters from crossing into Iraq.
On Sunday, senior U.S. military officials in Baghdad presented what they called growing evidence of Iranian weapons being used to kill their soldiers and implicated the “highest levels” of Iran’s government in the training of Iraqi militants.
Weapons from Iran are also being smuggled across the border into Iraq, they said.
In the latest violence in Baghdad, the suicide bomber detonated his small truck in a parking lot between the College of Economic Sciences, a private university, and a large foodstuff warehouse belonging to the Trade Ministry.
The blast in the mainly Shi’ite area set cars ablaze and destroyed a nearby home.
The attack, which also wounded 40 people, followed devastating bombings at two markets on Monday that killed at least 77 people and maimed scores.
Making his first public remarks since being appointed to head the Baghdad crackdown, Qanbar, a Shi’ite, said a nightly vehicle curfew in the city would be extended from 8.00 p.m. until 6 a.m. It now runs from 11.00 p.m. until 6.a.m.
He did not say what would happen to violators.
Qanbar added that “precautionary procedures” would apply to packages, mail and telecommunications equipment. He did not elaborate.
Other unspecified restrictions would be imposed on public places, clubs, organizations, unions and companies “for the security of the people and their workers”, he said.
Baghdad’s international airport, which has been closed down in security operations in the past, would not be affected.
President Bush is sending 17,500 more troops to Baghdad for the push. Thousands of Iraqi reinforcements have already arrived and Maliki has said they would step up their deployment on the streets this week.
In the wake of the spate of market bombings in Baghdad in recent weeks, a U.S. military spokesman, Lieutenant-Colonel Christopher Garver, said the security plan would reflect efforts to improve security for shoppers and merchants.
“Planners are looking for ways right now to make the markets - and the citizens of Baghdad who use them - safer,” Garver said, declining to give specifics.