Thursday, August 31, 2006


BAGHDAD, Iraq - As they patrol the streets of the troubled Ash-Shulah neighborhood, the troops of Charlie Company seek out tormentors and guardians: Sunni Arab insurgents who come to kill in this largely Shiite enclave, and Shiite militiamen who protect residents while doing their killing in adjoining Sunni districts.

This is the sinister grid of today's Baghdad, a capital divided along sectarian lines and bearing little relation to the relatively tolerant metropolis it used to be.

On this morning, the U.S. soldiers found no lurking killers, the enemy remaining in the shadows, well aware of the latest U.S.-led crackdown.

``It's too peaceful,'' said Lt. Col. Jeffrey Kelly, who heads the 1st Battalion of the 17th Infantry Regiment, which includes Charlie Company. ``It's great. It's really nice talking to folks. It's really refreshing. I wish it would stay like that.''

U.S. troops are again on the move in this city of 6 million people. Officials have taken to calling the new operation ``The Battle for Baghdad,'' and they emphasize that the stakes are high.

``The Battle for Baghdad will go a long ways toward determining the future of Iraq and the future of the Middle East,'' said Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, answering questions via e-mail. ``The United States simply cannot achieve its goals of a democratic, stable and secure Iraq if the unacceptable levels of violence that we had in Baghdad in recent months continue.''

About 8,000 additional U.S. soldiers have been in Baghdad since early August, accompanied by 3,000 Iraqi soldiers.

Despite an increase in violence in Baghdad and elsewhere in the past three days, U.S. officials say the early results of the Baghdad offensive seem encouraging. The capital's homicide rate, which soared to a high of more than 1,800 killings in July, appears to have plummeted by more than half in recent weeks, the U.S. military says.

But the plan carries the same potential weakness as previous efforts: U.S. troops, backed by Iraqi allies, descend on an area in force, pacify it and move on, leaving peacekeeping duties to overmatched Iraqi police officers and soldiers.

In the past, the ``we stand down, Iraqis step up'' blueprint has failed because the Iraqis have proven unable to keep the peace, U.S. officials said. Indeed, the inability of the Iraqi security services to keep Iraqis from killing each other was what prompted the newly bolstered U.S. presence in Baghdad.

Officials concede that there will never be enough U.S. forces in Baghdad to maintain a permanent, neighborhood-by-neighborhood presence throughout the sprawling city and its perilous suburbs.

So what is different this time? U.S. and Iraqi officials say it's a matter of commitment.

``The Battle for Baghdad is the most concentrated, focused effort to date in the capital, and the coalition military leadership and the Iraqi government are committed to not letting the city slip back into the vortex of violence,'' Khalilzad said.

As part of the plan, each Iraqi brigade will be subjected to a three-day ``quick look'' reassessment, said Army Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, the top U.S. military information officer in Baghdad. The plan also includes about $630 million in development funds for targeted neighborhoods.

In the new operation, troops typically cordon off neighborhoods and undertake door-to-door searches. House-sized assault vehicles, bristling with automatic weapons and grenade-deflecting grates, release troops and keep vigil on strategic corners, space-age intimidators in urban battlegrounds turned eerily tranquil.

Iraqi forces are officially running the operation, but in the west Baghdad neighborhood of Ash-Shulah one recent day, only three Iraqi soldiers accompanied Charlie Company on its six-hour sweep, often only observing.

So far, the U.S. military says, U.S. and Iraqi forces have searched more than 33,000 buildings, including 25 mosques. But the yield has been relatively small. They have detained 70 suspects and seized more than 700 weapons and 19 arms caches, and they have cleared 10,200 tons of trash.

Commanders concede that insurgents and killers may be waiting out the U.S. presence, knowing the troops will soon move on.

``Could some individuals have fled the area? Of course,'' said Col. Michael Shields, commander of the Army's 172nd Stryker Brigade, based in Alaska, whose controversial four-month deployment extension was a foundation of the Baghdad strategy. ``It's certainly a potential reality that many high-level leaders may have moved out of the area before the operation started.''

Thus far residents, whatever their enmity toward ``occupying'' forces, agree with U.S. commanders that the neighborhood saturation has helped reduce violence.

``Unfortunately, we now prefer the foreigners protecting us rather than our brothers,'' said Kifah Khudhair, 38, a Sunni and an unemployed former shop owner in the southern Baghdad neighborhood of Al-Doura. ``Now there is an American patrol of two Humvees and they are controlling the area. In the past, there was an Iraqi patrol of 60 vehicles doing nothing but driving fast and blowing their horns.''

Al-Doura, a largely Sunni neighborhood known for its twin smoke-belching power plant chimneys, is a place where U.S. forces have long faced fierce attacks. Where burning Humvees once drew frenzied merriment, many Sunnis reluctantly welcome the U.S. reinforcements.

But residents of some militia-patrolled Shiite neighborhoods resent the U.S. presence.

``A lot of the problems are perceptions in Baghdad -- the perception that the government may be favoring one group against another,'' said Army Col. Robert Scurlock, who heads the 1st Armored Division's 2nd Brigade Combat Team.

In Baghdad, the targets are a sinister muddle of Sunni insurgents, Shiite death squads, militiamen and non-ideological criminals of various stripes, some of whom operate with quasi-official approval.

With so many bad guys, U.S. commanders say they try to be equal-opportunity overseers.

``We're really not boring in on what organization they're from,'' said Shields, who noted the challenge of recognizing the enemy. ``The militias are within the people. They blend in with the people. It is very difficult to identify them when they lay down their arms.''

Much of the death-squad recruitment is believed to come from groups allied with the ruling Shiite coalition, which has an ambiguous role: Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is both nominally calling the shots in the Battle for Baghdad and expressing reservations about the possibility of U.S. incursions into the Shiite stronghold of Sadr City, a teeming east Baghdad neighborhood of 2 million people that is a bastion of militia members. It's an area that U.S. troops have largely avoided.

In Ash-Shulah on a recent afternoon, with the thermometer hitting 115 degrees, Capt. Ed Matthaidess led Charlie Company through narrow streets. The Shiite refuge in mostly Sunni west Baghdad has seen its share of slayings, car bombs and mortar attacks. The soldiers found no gunmen and few arms.

``I do believe that the larger stuff we're looking for . . . they moved it,'' Kelly said.

Responsibility for policing Ash-Shulah and much of west Baghdad was turned over to Iraqi forces in the past year. But attacks escalated. Until the U.S.-led crackdown, bodies would be dumped daily in the streets.

Iraqi forces ``have not kept up with it in the way that we would have wanted them to, the way we think they should have,'' Kelly said.

Veteran U.S. commanders in Iraq have too often witnessed ``cleared'' areas return to chaos once U.S. forces leave. They warn that the same deadly cycle is bound to repeat in Baghdad if lasting security and economic development do not follow.

``We come back to the dike all the time and stick our finger in,'' Kelly said. ``It is a longtime process. . . . The reality is that if we left that neighborhood tomorrow, it would start again.''


If we had only listened to Iraqis like Alaa when he warned us six month ago about all this, we could have prevented much of the chaos.


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