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Tensions high as security operation begins

Checkpoints stall traffic in Baghdad

BAGHDAD -- Baghdad's streets were electric with tension yesterday as US officials confirmed the new security operation was underway. US armor rushed through streets, and Iraqi armored personnel carriers guarded bridges and major intersections.

New coils of barbed wire and blast barriers marked checkpoints that caused traffic bottlenecks. US Apache helicopters whipped the air over parts of the capital where they hadn't been seen before.

But gunfire still rang out across the city, and some residents said they doubted life would get better. "Nothing will work, it's too late," said Hashem al-Moussawi, a resident of the Sadr City Shi'ite enclave who was badly wounded in a bombing in December.

Major General William B. Caldwell, the top US military spokesman in Iraq, said yesterday that the much-awaited Baghdad security operation was finally underway. "The implementation of the [Iraqi] prime minister's plan has already begun and will be fully implemented at a later date, having all the parts and pieces that he wants," he told a news briefing.

The operation is the third attempt by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his US backers to pacify Baghdad since the Shi'ite leader came to office in May. The operation, which will involve about 90,000 Iraqi and American troops, is seen by many as a last chance to curb Iraq's sectarian war.

Many Baghdad residents said they weren't hopeful.

"If this security plan is the same as those we had before, with checkpoints delaying the traffic for hours, then I can tell you now that it will be a failure," said Murtadha Mahdi, a 35-year-old unemployed father of two who lives in Hurriyah, now a predominantly Shi'ite district in northern Baghdad that saw some of the worst sectarian fighting late last year.

At checkpoints that seemed to have been thrown up overnight -- some of them blocking half the lanes of traffic on wide streets -- Iraqi police and army soldiers searched cars at random. Drivers and passengers had to get out and show identity papers.

Adding to the tension, Iraqi army and police convoys fired rounds into the air above motorists, warning them to make way for passing forces. The security troops drove over traffic medians and into incoming traffic.

In a sign of just how dangerous the security mission will be, a three-vehicle Western security company convoy came under fire near Haifa Street, a Sunni insurgent stronghold just north of the Green Zone.

In parts of the city only a few shops were open, a reminder of the fear people have of more car and suicide bombings. Lines outside gas stations stretched for more than a mile, as the city is experiencing its worst fuel crisis in months. Supplies are very low because refining capacity is down, a problem compounded by hoarding.

Gunfire rang out across the capital, and the wail of police and ambulance sirens seemed incessant.