Armed Iraqis Wary of Security Plan

By Ernesto Londoño and Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, February 15, 2007

BAGHDAD, Feb. 14 -- At least once a week inside his stationery shop, Ali al-Yousef stacks up old notebooks in the back room and fires his pistol at them.

"Target practice," Yousef said. "We don't like guns, but we have to have them. I think every house should have a gun."

As the contours of the Baghdad security plan start to solidify, Yousef, 55, like millions of other Iraqis, is trying to assess whether measures such as the newly announced ban on civilians carrying weapons are more likely to keep him safe than the 9mm pistol he carries on the seat between his legs, safety off, for the drive home.

The U.S. military announced Wednesday the formal start of the security plan, dubbed Operation Law and Order, saying in a statement that troops cleared several areas of the capital in "intelligence-focused searches."

But the security plan is nowhere near full throttle, officials said, and results should not be expected overnight. The 21,500 Americans that constitute the troop surge are not all expected until at least late May, a military spokesman said Wednesday. And the training and equipping of Iraq's security forces will be a long-term endeavor.

"The Iraqi forces still suffer from deficiencies of leadership, logistics, intelligence and, in some cases, loyalty," Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell, a military spokesman, said Wednesday. "It will take more than two months to solve these problems."

Government officials also must grapple with numerous variables -- including the reported departure of radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, the leader of the powerful Mahdi Army militia, and relentless attacks on U.S. forces -- as they attempt to restore order in Iraq.

But signs of tighter security began to emerge this week in Iraq's largely lawless capital. Fighter jets circled over Baghdad on Wednesday as more, and more thorough, checkpoints clogged already saturated streets.

Officials are planning to beef up security along the Iranian and Syrian borders, which will be sealed soon for 72 hours while authorities upgrade security measures. And the countless squatters who have reshaped the city have been put on notice: Abandon illegally occupied homes within two weeks or face eviction.

Meanwhile, in shops and homes and on street corners, the debate raged: Will it work this time? Can this government be trusted?

Behind the counter, Yousef's daughter, Ruqiyah, 25, carries a tiny Italian-made Tanfoglio Giuseppe 5mm pistol. "For girls," he explained.

In shops in the Karrada neighborhood, owners defended their need for weapons to protect themselves from Baghdad's violence. As part of the security plan, the government said it will limit the use of weapons in public places to official forces and licensed security guards.

Caldwell said Wednesday that U.S. officials believe that Sadr is in Iran, which Sadr's supporters have denied. A U.S. military intelligence official who specializes in the Middle East and spoke on condition of anonymity said Sadr is likely regrouping with Iraqi and Iranian supporters.

"I believe that he went to Iran for a strategic session" with the Revolutionary Guard "and Iran's other proxies in Iraq to determine actually how they will undermine America's plans," the official said. Another source, an intelligence official in Washington, said Sadr is believed to have been in Iran for several weeks. The source, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said speculation about the timing of his reported departure on the eve of the security plan might be overblown. "There could be any number of reasons for a trip there," the source said, noting that Sadr has traveled to Iran before. "He's got contacts and family in Iran."

Also Wednesday, Caldwell said a transport helicopter that crashed near Baghdad on Feb. 7 was apparently downed by a "sophisticated piece of weaponry." Military officials previously said the CH-46 Sea Knight experienced mechanical difficulties before crashing.

A militant Shiite group posted a brief video on a Web site that purported to show an American soldier kidnapped in Baghdad in October. U.S. Army interpreter Ahmed Qusai al-Taayie, 41, was abducted Oct. 23 while visiting his wife's relatives in Baghdad's Karrada neighborhood. Caldwell said U.S. officials are reviewing the video.

The military also disclosed the deaths of four Task Force Lightning soldiers attacked Wednesday in Diyala province, north of Baghdad. Three died "following explosions near their vehicles," the military said in a statement. A fourth soldier died later at a medical facility.

Also Wednesday, the military disclosed that a U.S. soldier was fatally shot Tuesday in Baghdad.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company