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Maliki lauds Iraq security plan

He tells Bush it has been a ‘fabulous success’

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BAGHDAD, Iraq — The relative lull in violence is a promising sign that the Baghdad security plan is off to a good start, the Iraqi prime minister said Friday, while a top U.S. military official cautioned that it might be a temporary letup as militant organizations assess the new measures and gear up to fight back.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki assured President Bush that the 3-day-old plan "has achieved fabulous success," according to an account of the conversation released by the prime minister's office. Speaking by secure video link-up, Maliki also told Bush that officials will be "firm in dealing with any side that breaks the law, regardless" of their sect.

U.S. Maj. Gen. Joseph F. Fil Jr., the commander of the 1st Cavalry Division in Baghdad, spoke of the recent calm in more cautious terms. "We do expect there are going to be some very rough, difficult days ahead," Fil told reporters at the Pentagon, speaking from Baghdad in a video link-up, according to a transcript. "This enemy knows how — they understand lethality, and they have a thirst for blood like I have never seen anywhere before."

Meanwhile on Friday, a U.S. military spokesman said the leader of a powerful Sunni insurgent group in Iraq was not wounded in a clash with police, denying a report from Iraq's Interior Ministry. "We believe that al-Masri was not killed or wounded in any action yesterday," Lt. Col. Christopher C. Garver said Friday.

A ministry spokesman said Thursday night that the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, who is known by the alias Abu Ayyub al-Masri, was injured in a shootout with police earlier that evening. The spokesman also said one of Masri's top deputies, Abu Abdullah al-Mujamie, was killed in a gun battle with police near Samarra.

A statement posted online attributed to the insurgent group denied that Masri had been killed and accused the Iraqi government of fabricating the report.

However, an al-Qaida in Iraq leader confirmed the death of the deputy in a phone interview Thursday night. Repeated attempts to reach ministry sources Friday for further details on the reported clash were unsuccessful.

Iraqi and U.S. forces have been sweeping targeted areas of the city to root out insurgents and restore order in neighborhoods. So far, officials say, they have met little resistance.

The increased patrols are accompanied by other security measures, such as tightened controls at the borders with Syria and Iran and a crackdown on civilians carrying weapons.

To support the growing number of U.S. Army brigades in the Baghdad area, Pentagon officials said Friday that an additional division headquarters of about 1,000 soldiers will be sent three months earlier than expected. The 3rd Infantry Division headquarters, based at Fort Stewart, Ga., will deploy to Iraq in March instead of June. The soldiers will provide command and control, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

The acceleration of the deployment reflects an immediate need for more support for what will be 10 U.S. brigades in Iraq's capital, officials said. There are currently eight brigades operating under the 1st Cavalry Division's leadership.

The deployment is the headquarters' third to Iraq, including the initial invasion of Baghdad in 2003. The unit's original June deployment was announced in November and was scheduled to be part of President Bush's plan to send additional U.S. troops to Baghdad.

Contributing: Josh White, Waleed Saffar.