Baghdad, Iraq American troops are stepping up operations in the Baghdad area to combat death squads and dampen down the violence threatening the new unity government, a U.S. general said Monday.
Two more U.S. soldiers were killed Monday, the U.S. military said.
U.S. and Iraqi forces conducted 19 operations last week targeting death squads, U.S. spokesman Maj. Gen. William Caldwell told reporters. All but two were in Baghdad, he said.
"Clearly Baghdad is the center that everybody is fighting for," Caldwell said. "We will do whatever it takes to bring security to Baghdad."
Security in the Iraqi capital is expected to figure prominently in talks today in Washington between President Bush and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Many of the death squads are believed to be associated with either Sunni or Shiite armed groups, targeting members of the rival sect as part of a struggle for power between the country's two major religious communities.
The killings accelerated after the Feb. 22 bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra and have steadily increased despite establishment of al-Maliki's national unity government last May.
On Monday, the city morgue in Kut, a mostly Shiite city southeast of Baghdad, reported receiving 19 bodies - blindfolded and some showing signs of torture. They were believed to be victims of sectarian death squads, city officials said.
U.S. officials have avoided identifying death squads and militias by sect, preferring instead to refer to them as criminals and thugs.
"We have not seen the death squads associated with any one particular sect," Caldwell said. "But they're not part of a larger organization that we can see."
He said "very extremist elements" from both sectarian communities were "using murder and assassination as their means by which to further their personal goals."
Many Iraqis believe they are operated by Shiite militias and Sunni extremist groups, some of which have ties to political parties. Combatting death squads runs the risk of armed confrontation with militias such as the Mahdi Army of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose movement is part of al-Maliki's government.
Last Saturday, U.S. and Iraqi troops fought a three-hour gunbattle with al-Sadr's militiamen in Musayyib. Fifteen militiamen and one Iraqi soldier were killed. The week before, British soldiers arrested al-Sadr's militia commander in the Basra area of southern Iraq.
The rise in sectarian violence has shifted attention away from the Sunni-led insurgency most active in western Anbar province to Baghdad, a city of 6 million people with large communities of Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds. The two soldiers killed Monday were from the 1st Armored Division and were killed in Anbar, the U.S. military said.
The Baghdad area recorded an average of 34 major bombings and shootings for the week ending July 13, the U.S. military said. That was up 40 percent from the daily average of 24 registered between June 14 and July 13.
U.S. officials believe control of Baghdad - the political, cultural, transport and economic hub of the country - will determine the future of Iraq.