BAGHDAD, Iraq — Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki complained Tuesday the long-awaited Baghdad security operation was off to a slow start and warned that insurgents are taking advantage of the delay to kill as many people as possible.
But he also reassured Iraqis that security forces will live up to their responsibilities.
The statement came as new checkpoints were erected and increased vehicle inspections and foot patrols were reported in some neighborhoods — providing the main evidence so far that U.S. and Iraqi forces were gearing up for a major neighborhood-to-neighborhood sweep to quell sectarian violence in the city of 6 million.
Underscoring the dangers as the U.S. augments its force by 21,500 as part of the plan, the U.S. military announced the deaths of two more troops, including a soldier who was killed Tuesday by small arms fire at a security post southwest of Baghdad, and a Marine who died Monday in Anbar province, west of the capital.
At least 51 Iraqis also were killed or found dead around the country, including eight slain by two car bombs in Baghdad.
"The operations will unite us, and we will take action soon, God willing, even though I believe we've been very late and this delay has started to give a negative message," al-Maliki said in a meeting with military commanders shown on state TV. "I hope that more efforts will be exerted and more speed exerted in carrying out and achieving all the preparations to start the operations."
Al-Maliki urged his commanders to step up efforts to complete the preparations for the security plan, saying the delays had allowed insurgents to step up attacks that have killed hundreds in recent weeks.
"I say again, we have talked much about the operations, and while the Iraqis are waiting and waiting, the terrorists in turn have raised the level of the bombing operations and started killing people in mass numbers," the prime minister told his commanders, urging them to step up efforts to complete the preparations. "Our slogan should be 'rest is prohibited, especially for military men, and day and night should merge in working to achieve victory."'
"We should carry out the operation in good time and should not delay, because the delay will be used against us by the enemies ... and those who are afraid of them," he added.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the increase in U.S. forces in Iraq is "not the last chance" to succeed and conceded he was considering what steps to take if the buildup fails.
"I would be irresponsible if I weren't thinking about what the alternatives might be," he told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Gates said the operation was to have started Monday. "It's probably going to slip a few days, and it's probably going to be a rolling implementation," he said.
In other violence, Iraqi police found the bullet-riddled bodies of 33 people — 19 in Baghdad — apparent victims of sectarian death squads.
The Shiite-led Iraqi government has pledged to go after the mainly Shiite militias largely blamed for such killings as well as Sunni insurgents suspected in most of the bombings, including a suicide attack on a Baghdad food market Saturday that killed at least 137 people.
Al-Maliki, who has seen sectarian violence rise since taking office May 20, 2006, despite two previous efforts to secure the capital, declared that Iraqi forces will live up to their responsibilities and told his commanders they must not disappoint those "who stand beside us."
"As far as the security issue is concerned, we should be determined and committed. We should carry out the operation on time and should not delay because the delay will be used against us by our enemies," he added.
Al-Maliki also accused other countries in the region of supporting militants to destabilize Iraq and prevent democracy from spreading — an apparent reference to U.S. rivals Iran and Syria.
"We have many times talked about this interference and said that we will not sit endlessly silent about those who interfere in our affairs and support terrorism," he said.
Iran, meanwhile, condemned Sunday's abduction of an Iranian diplomat as he drove through Baghdad, saying it held the United States responsible for the diplomat's "safety and life."
One Iraqi government official said the Iranian was detained Sunday by an Iraqi army unit that reports directly to the U.S. military. A military spokesman denied any U.S. troops or Iraqis that report to them were involved.
"We've checked with our units and it was not an MNF-I (Multi-National Forces — Iraq) unit that participated in that event," said Lt. Col. Christopher Garver, a U.S. military spokesman.
Suspicion also fell on a range of possible culprits — Iraqi commandos, rogue elements in the security forces, Sunni insurgents or criminals seeking ransom.
The diplomat was abducted as tension between Iran and the United States is mounting over alleged Iranian support of Shiite extremists in Iraq and U.S. efforts to force Tehran to abandon its nuclear program. Iran says it wants to use the technology to generate nuclear power.
Contributing: Ali Akbar Dareini