By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, February 26, 2007
BAGHDAD -- The engineer stood aside as Iraqi and American soldiers rifled through his daughter's wardrobe and peered under her bed. He did not mind when they confiscated the second clip for his AK-47, because he knew it could be easily replaced. He demurred when asked about insurgent activity in the neighborhood, afraid to be stamped an informant and driven from his home of 14 years. Face to face with the Baghdad security plan, it seemed to him a bit absurd.
"Obviously, the soldiers lack the necessary information about where to look and who to look for," said the government engineer, who declined to give his name in an interview during a sweep through his western Baghdad neighborhood last Monday. "There are too many houses and too many hide-outs."
American military commanders in Iraq describe the security plan they began implementing in mid-February as a rising tide: a gradual influx of thousands of U.S. and Iraqi troops whose extended presence in the city's violent neighborhoods will drown the militants' ability to stage bombings and sectarian killings.
But U.S. troops, Iraqi soldiers and officials, and Baghdad residents say the plan is hampered because security forces cannot identify, let alone apprehend, the elusive perpetrators of the violence. Shiite militiamen in the capital say they are keeping a low profile to wait out the security plan. U.S. commanders have noted increased insurgent violence in the Sunni-dominated belt around Baghdad and are concerned that fighters are shifting their focus outside the city.
The first brigade of 2,700 American reinforcements is patrolling the capital, bringing the total U.S. troop presence in Baghdad to 40,000, and members of three additional Iraqi military brigades have entered the city, though not at full strength. Soldiers have opened 14 of the estimated 30 joint policing stations they will operate in the capital.
Military patrols frequently push into neighborhoods where they have been shot at or struck with improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, only to find no one to arrest.
"I don't know who I'm fighting most of the time," said Staff Sgt. Joseph Lopez, 39, a soldier based in the northern outskirts of the capital. "I don't know who is setting what IED."
Many people in Baghdad express deep reservations about the Iraqi security forces' ability and desire to battle their fellow citizens. U.S. soldiers say their Iraqi counterparts are swayed more by the anti-American speeches of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr than by the public appeals of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for even-handed enforcement.
On the streets of the capital, it is impossible to miss the increased military presence. Iraqi police pickups speed down the avenues, sirens wailing, as masked officers fire machine guns to clear their path. Iraqi army soldiers and policemen stand sentry at checkpoint after checkpoint, but more often than not allow cars to pass through without inspection.
"They're just standing and waving at the cars," said Sgt. Haider Hasim, 20, a member of the Iraqi National Guard's 1st Brigade, 2nd Regiment of the 6th Division, who patrols the western Baghdad neighborhood of Amiriyah. "They won't take weapons from their friends."
Commandos and policemen from the predominantly Shiite Interior Ministry have little desire to raid or arrest members of their own sect or residents from their home neighborhoods, said Hasim, whose father is Sunni and mother is Shiite. From what he has seen, the Iraqi soldiers brought in for the security plan are accomplishing little.
"They're doing nothing, they're just sleeping at the camps," he said. "We do not go out if the Americans are not with us."
For the Americans, the security plan depends heavily on pushing along the Iraqi security forces. The so-called joint security stations envisioned under the plan are intended not only to generate intelligence about insurgents and militias but also to bring together Iraqi military and police personnel, who often fail to communicate, as well as U.S. troops. The stations will be scattered throughout the city's 10 newly designated security districts. The plan originally divided the city into nine sectors, but one was split in two.
Lt. Col. Christopher C. Garver, a U.S. military spokesman, said that although part of the stations' function is to encourage Iraqis to visit, their locations would not be disclosed because of concern within the Iraqi government that such information would facilitate attacks.
Under the security plan, the Iraqi government has granted itself broad powers to impose martial law. Lt. Gen. Abboud Gambar, the Iraqi commander of the effort, said in a speech last week that the government could hold and search individuals "whenever deemed fit." The government can disperse any public gatherings, inspect any public or private property, and "search, control, and seize all parcel post, mail, telegraphs, communication devices as needed," Gambar said.
To prevent car bomb attacks in Baghdad, the U.S. military has adopted a "city manager" approach, looking at "where all the different marketplaces were, the ingress-egress routes, the side roads, the traffic pattern flows," Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell told reporters in a briefing last week. But he also acknowledged that as security forces focus on threats from vehicles, insurgents have been shifting tactics, increasingly deploying suicide bombers wearing explosive vests.
Some of the 21,500 additional troops President Bush is sending to Iraq have arrived. Top U.S. commanders are considering sending at least one of the five new brigades to the outskirts of the city and another to Diyala province, which this month has become increasingly deadly for U.S. soldiers.
"This is the very start, and it's too early to make any determinations at all on whether it's working, not working, what effect it's had," said a senior U.S. defense official in Baghdad who spoke on condition of anonymity. "We just don't have all the forces on the ground yet. People are looking for this big D-Day event and it's not going to happen."
Two days after the plan's official start on Feb. 14, Maliki, the prime minister, hailed its "fabulous success." Two days later, a double car bomb attack along a commercial strip in New Baghdad killed more than 60 people. A week after the plan's launch, a truck bomb rigged with tanks of chlorine gas blew up in southern Baghdad, killing seven people. It was among at least three attacks that involved chlorine gas in the past month. U.S. officials warned that it was a new insurgent tactic designed to sow panic and incite further sectarian violence.
At the end of the first week of the security crackdown, Caldwell announced, without providing statistics, a "very significant" decrease in such sectarian violence, while cautioning that it was premature to judge the plan's success.
Death tolls in February provided by an official at the Baghdad morgue, who is not authorized to speak publicly, appear to support Caldwell's statement. The official said that from Feb. 1 to Feb. 13, the bodies of 806 people who died as a result of violence were brought to the morgue, including 211 unidentified bodies, many of them bound, shot and showing signs of torture. Over the next nine days, 244 bodies were brought in, among them 58 unidentified corpses.
But there is still a bunker mentality among residents of the capital, who are afraid to venture out for any but the most necessary errands. The owner of a deserted fabric shop in Baghdad's Zayuna neighborhood, Manaf Ali, said his children continue to attend school only once a week because he is afraid for their lives. A goldsmith working next door at al-Faiq shopping center, Haider Mohammed, 31, sleeps on the floor of an unfurnished apartment close to his shop rather than travel to work from his embattled Sunni neighborhood of Adhamiyah. Both men carry guns.
"How can we notice any change in the streets? We are just like chickens, staying in our cages," Mohammed said. "I am a goldsmith. What am I doing carrying a gun?"
To Ali, 41, there are only small signs of increased order. He welcomes the presence of more soldiers on the streets, and sees fewer Shiite militiamen. "Thank God now the mass abductions and the militias seem to be slowing down, and we are only left with the suicide bombs and car bombs," he said.
Along Palestine Street, a once vibrant commercial district, shop owners were relieved not by the greater military presence, but by the absence of Mahdi Army militiamen from neighboring Sadr City, the impoverished Shiite district and militia stronghold. The owner of a photography studio, a Sunni, pulled from his wallet a receipt for the "tax" that militiamen extract from merchants for their protection. Another merchant said he, too, faced extortion, which costs the equivalent of $30 a month. This month, the "savages" have not been around to collect, said the studio owner, who would not allow his name to be published.
"There needs to be raids against the militias, and not only in Sadr City," said Ahmed Abdul Rahman, 29, who works in an art gallery on Palestine Street. "Until then, this is not real."
Special correspondents K.I. Ibrahim and Saad al-Izzi contributed to this report.