By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, September 16, 2006
BAGHDAD, Sept. 15 -- U.S. military and Iraqi security forces have begun a massive effort to seal off Baghdad with a ring of reinforced checkpoints, berms, trenches, barriers and fences in an attempt to clamp down on insurgents, officials said Friday.
A few dozen checkpoints will be placed along key arteries in and out of Baghdad to ensure that people move through "predictable paths" that can be controlled, Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, a U.S. military spokesman, said late Friday night. Iraqi forces will man the checkpoints and patrol the terrain, with support from U.S. troops.
"We know there's a flow in and out of the city of those who are responsible for the violence," Johnson said. "The intent is to control Baghdad city."
The plans were announced on a day when officials said 52 bound and tortured corpses were found across Baghdad over a 24-hour period. Baghdad's body count has surged in recent days, despite a month-old push by thousands of U.S. and Iraqi forces to tame some of the capital's roughest neighborhoods.
The construction of a ring around Baghdad would be the most ambitious security endeavor yet for the U.S. military and its Iraqi allies as they try to block militias, death squads and insurgents from funneling in weapons, explosives, funding and recruits from outside the capital.
"The enemy is changing tactics, and we're adapting," President Bush said Friday in Washington. "The enemy moves, and we will help the Iraqis move. And so they're building a berm around the city to make it harder for people to come in with explosive devices, for example. . . . They got a clear-build-and-hold strategy."
The project is underway as sectarian violence is emerging as the biggest challenge to U.S. and Iraqi forces engaged in what some U.S. officials have called the Battle for Baghdad, a confrontation that might strongly influence the future path of Iraq.
"We're trying to knock down sectarian violence and go after those folks, those death squads that have caused this new form of violence, that if left unchecked could lead to civil war," said Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the second-ranking U.S. military officer in Iraq.
The effort to wrap Baghdad in a protective bubble is not a new tactic. In Fallujah, U.S. and Iraqi forces have controlled entry and exit since an assault by U.S. forces in November 2004. In the volatile town of Samarra, where the bombing of a Shiite shrine in February triggered the sectarian violence now ravaging Baghdad, the U.S. military has erected berms around the town. The dirt ridges, a few feet high, serve largely to channel traffic.
Johnson, the U.S. military spokesman, said the Baghdad project has been underway for a few weeks and that building has begun. The plan is to use the natural terrain where possible and reinforce existing barriers, "complementing them with trenches, in other places berms, and other types of fencing."
Such efforts are among the methods that counterinsurgency experts recommend to gain control over population movements. Yet some analysts also say that the United States has never taken what many of them contend is an essential first step: conducting a thorough census, then issuing identity cards and requiring all people to carry them at all times.
It is unclear whether the planned complex of berms, trenches and checkpoints will be effective in Baghdad, a megalopolis of 81 square miles that includes vast stretches of farmland and open terrain. Insurgents and members of private militias might still be able to avoid the checkpoints, and even if they don't, U.S. and Iraqi forces still face the problem of identifying them.
The Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins in October, is likely to increase the flow of people in and out of Baghdad. The Iraqi government, Johnson said, is trying to determine how the plan to seal Baghdad will affect the flow of vehicles in a city already clogged with heavy traffic.
The grisly discoveries of more bodies around the capital illustrated how serious the ongoing sectarian strife has become. According to Iraqi police officials, some of the corpses had disfigured faces. Most were shot in the head. All bore marks of torture. Some were found near a railroad track, others near a bus station. Five were beheaded. All were young men, in civilian clothes, between the ages of 20 and 35.
The bodies were dumped in both Shiite Muslim and Sunni Muslim neighborhoods, east, west and south of the Tigris River, which weaves through the heart of the city. In total, 114 bullet-riddled and tortured corpses have turned up since Tuesday.
Meanwhile, on Friday, five U.S. soldiers were reported killed. Military officials said they included two who were killed Thursday in a suicide bombing that also wounded 30 Americans west of Baghdad. Another American soldier died in combat in Anbar province on Friday, and two more were killed by roadside bombs -- one on Thursday in northwest Baghdad, the other in south Baghdad on Friday.
In the northern city of Mosul, a car bomb that targeted a U.S. patrol killed nine civilians, said Brig. Gen. Saed Jubury, a police spokesman.
In the political arena, a revered Shiite cleric indicated that he would not support a proposal to create a controversial autonomous Shiite region that many Sunnis and some Shiites fear could partition Iraq.
After a meeting with senior Shiite leaders, Ayatollah Mohammad Yaqoubi's office released a statement saying that Yaqoubi stressed "the maintenance of Iraq's unity and expressed his upset over the discord among the political parties and their preference for their factious interests over the public interests of the people."
The statement delivered another blow to efforts by Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, to pass a draft bill that would carve Iraq into a three-part federal system, including a separate Shiite region.
Sunni Arab political parties have accused their Shiite counterparts of trying to break apart Iraq and have threatened to boycott parliament. Both the Kurdish-populated north and the Shiite south are oil-rich, while most Sunni Arabs live around Baghdad or in Iraq's resource-poor western provinces.
Correspondent Ellen Knickmeyer in Baghdad, staff writer Thomas E. Ricks in Washington, special correspondent Saad Sarhan in Najaf and other Washington Post staff contributed to this report.