By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, April 4, 2007
BAGHDAD, April 3 -- On a two-day visit to Iraq, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) declared after a short walk in a market that Baghdad was becoming safer under a new security plan. But after his departure, Iraqi merchants and U.S. military officials said his upbeat assessment is far from the reality they experience every day.
McCain, who left Iraq on Monday but remained in the region, also said that "things are getting better in Iraq" and that he was "pleased with the progress that has been made," although he cautioned that there was still a difficult road ahead. However, new morgue statistics obtained by The Washington Post paint a more complicated picture and underscore the country's precarious security environment.
"This is the most dangerous area," Ahmad al-Aghaedi, the owner of a small shop that sells light fixtures in the city's Shorja market, which McCain visited, said on Tuesday. "There are snipers everywhere. Just three days ago, before the delegation arrived, they shot someone."
U.S. and Iraqi forces launched the security offensive in February. In March, violent deaths dropped in Baghdad, according to Iraqi morgue and police statistics. But violence rose elsewhere in Iraq, fueled largely by suicide bombings.
In March, a total of 2,762 Iraqi civilians and policemen were killed, down 4 percent from the previous month, when 2,864 were killed.
The number of Iraqi policemen killed across Iraq nearly doubled from 171 in February to 331 in March, according to Interior Ministry statistics. Meanwhile, the numbers of unidentified bodies found across Baghdad are rising again, suggesting an increase in sectarian-motivated death squad killings.
In the first three weeks of the security plan, from Feb. 14 to March 7, 125 unidentified bodies were reported. But in the next three weeks, ending March 31, they nearly doubled to 230, according to the morgue data.
Statistics are often inexact here, with several ministries handing out different sets of data. Citing a security official who collected data from the Defense, Health and Interior ministries, the Reuters news agency, for example, reported this week that a smaller number of people had been killed, 2,078, which it said represented a 15 percent rise over February.
U.S. and Iraqi officials said in interviews that while U.S. and Iraqi forces have focused their security efforts largely on Baghdad, violence is spreading to other parts of Iraq, and that they have noticed a rise in sectarian killings in recent weeks.
A U.S. military official on Tuesday described McCain's comments about Baghdad's safety as "a bit of hyperbole."
"Sectarian-motivated killings were down sharply at the beginning of last month, though they have spiked a bit lately," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. "Things are indeed better in Baghdad, for now. It's just a very fragile situation that could turn at any moment."
"It could keep on like this for the foreseeable future and there would be a chance to make some progress, and there could be a catastrophic event that negates all of our progress. It's just hard to say."
In Shorja market -- where McCain and three other congressional Republicans went Sunday for one hour -- most shops were shuttered on Tuesday by 2:30 p.m. They included the carpet shops where Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said he bought "five rugs for five bucks."
Thin crowds walked the street, which was fortified by concrete barriers and razor wire. Iraqi soldiers in a Humvee were positioned at one end of the street.
Another member of the delegation, Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), declared that it was "like a normal outdoor market in Indiana in the summertime."
But merchants on Tuesday said they fear for their lives, despite the drop in killings in Baghdad last month reflected in the morgue data.
They said that the only reason McCain and his delegation could stroll through Shorja market was because of the heavy security that accompanied their visit. Scores of U.S. soldiers in combat gear had cordoned off both sides of the street, their armored Humvees parked nearby, the merchants said. Military helicopters hovered above the rooftops. The visitors wore bulletproof vests on the recently fortified area that now bans vehicle traffic.
"The force was extraordinary," said Hassan al-Aghaedi, Ahmad's brother. His other brother Ayad, he recalled, told members of the delegation: "Once you closed the road, the economic center of Baghdad died."
Ahmad pointed at a small wad of bills on his table and said: "That's all we made today, 10,000 dinars," the equivalent of about $7.75.
"Before, we made 1 million dinars a day," said Hassan. "People are afraid to come here. There have been lots of bombings."
"This was all done just for the media," said Ahmad, referring to McCain's visit. "Security means being able to open the street up, to move freely, to be open until late at night."
As they spoke, they were shutting down their shop, worried about the threat of kidnapping. About two weeks ago, thugs entered a neighboring shop at around this time, handcuffed the owner and took all his money. Around the warren of shops in Shorja market, he was considered lucky.
"They usually ask for ransom, and then behead the hostage," said Hassan.
As he stepped outside his shop, he pointed to a green pedestrian bridge, near a charred, bomb-shattered building, and said: "If you go in that direction you'll be kidnapped."
In areas outside Baghdad, it's worse. According to the morgue data, violent deaths rose 20 percent in March. Last week, at least 152 people were killed in a double truck bombing that targeted Shiites in Tall Afar, which the Interior Ministry described as the deadliest single strike during four years of war. It triggered reprisal attacks against Sunnis the next day that left at least 45 dead.
"As we apply pressure to the enemy in Baghdad, we're becoming concerned about them moving elsewhere," said Lt. Col. Christopher C. Garver, a military spokesman. "We're watching them, we're adjusting our forces to deal with that . . . We'll chase them there."
He said troops have been added in Anbar and Diyala provinces, and the military has "total flexibility" to move troops where they are needed in Iraq. U.S. commanders have said they won't be at full troop levels for the security offensives until June.
"My feeling is that things are going according to plan," said Brig. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, an Iraqi spokesman for the Baghdad security plan. He said that insurgents have been increasingly targeting police checkpoints.
In Baghdad, many residents are not taking chances. A new grocery store recently opened in the upscale neighborhood of Karrada, one of the capital's safer enclaves. It's called "Karrada-Shorja."
"People who live around here cannot go to Shorja market because of the road. They are afraid for their lives." said Dhari Abdul, whose cousin owns the store. "So we came to them."
Correspondent Joshua Partlow and special correspondents Naseer Nouri, Saad al-Izzi and Waleed Saffar contributed to this report.