your connection to The Boston Globe

Uneasy start to Baghdad plan

Identifying insurgents proves difficult

A US soldier stands guard at a construction site on Haifa Street in Baghdad. A US soldier stands guard at a construction site on Haifa Street in Baghdad. (NAMIR NOOR-ELDEEN/REUTERS)

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, he found it 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 week . "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 US and Iraqi troops whose extended presence in the city's violent neighborhoods will drown the militants' ability to stage bombings and sectarian killings.

But US 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. Shi'ite militiamen in the capital say they are keeping a low profile to wait out the security plan. US 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 US 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 Sergeant Joseph Lopez, 39, a soldier based in the northern outskirts of the capital.

Many people in Baghdad express deep reservations about the Iraqi security forces' ability and desire to battle their fellow citizens. US soldiers say their Iraqi counterparts are swayed more by the anti-American speeches of Shi'ite 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 vehicles 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 Sergeant 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 Shi'ite 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 Shi'ite. From what he has seen, the Iraqi soldiers brought in for the security plan are accomplishing little.

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 US troops. The stations will be scattered throughout the city's 10 newly designated security districts.

Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Garver, a US 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. Lieutenant General 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 US 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," Major General William 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 US 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 US 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 defense official in Baghdad who spoke on condition of anonymity. " 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. US 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 .

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 .

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 order. He welcomes the presence of more soldiers on the streets . "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.