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US efforts in Iraq embattled, but often welcomed

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 3, 2006


In a bid to control sectarian violence spiraling in Baghdad, US and Iraqi forces moved months ago into one of the toughest Sunni insurgent neighborhoods, Amiriyah.

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At first, change was palpable. The Americans paid a Sunni contractor to clear streets and pick up trash. Checkpoints targeted insurgents, though few were netted.

But "ethnic cleansing" of the few remaining Shiites continued. The contractor was murdered, ending that program. And Sunday, the threat came to Mohamed al-Baghdadi's door when two young men left a note: Move out in two days or die.

"What is the benefit of US and Iraqi troops, if the killing continues, and bombs and IEDs, and they are forcing people to leave?" asks Mr. Baghdadi, a pseudonym for a Shiite pharmacist with a Sunni wife, who secretly serves as a medic for the Iraqi Army. "The American Army does not control Amiriyah."

US forces have enjoyed some tactical successes – for a time in Amiriyah, and in the insurgent stronghold of Doura, where residents have praised US moves. Elsewhere, Iraqis have approvingly noted US soldiers, shovels in hand, clearing blocked sewers.

The renewed US military attention to Baghdad has sometimes been welcomed. But it is often not deemed sustainable by Iraqi units when US forces eventually leave. And in other areas, such as the Shiite suburb of Sadr City, an increased US presence over the past week has deepened antioccupation sentiment, and threatened renewed conflict.

The US says the success of the step-by-step approach must be measured over time. "A lump of clay can become a sculpture, blobs of paint become paintings which inspire," Maj. Gen. William Caldwell said Thursday. "The final test of our efforts will not be the isolated incidents reported daily but the country that the Iraqis build."

US commanders recently termed the results of "Operation Forward Together," launched last June, as "disheartening." A secret Central Command briefing slide from Oct. 18, published Wednesday in The New York Times, assessed the situation as heading toward "chaos." It noted "urban areas experiencing 'ethnic cleansing' campaigns to consolidate control ... violence at all-time high, spreading geographically."

The Baghdadi family knows how that feels, as they succumbed to the threatening letter. A Shiite friend who owned a clothes shop had recently been murdered; insurgents even shot at that family the next day, forcing them to seek US and Iraqi military help as they loaded a moving truck.

Within hours of receiving the computer-printed threat, Baghdadi drove his two Shiite brothers to an uncle's house in a safer area. Early the next morning, with just the clothes on their backs, money, and a few valuables – so they would appear not to be moving – Baghdadi's family ended their 25-year residence in Amiriyah.

The district, on the north side of the road to the airport, and seeded by Saddam Hussein with military and intelligence loyalists, was always going to be tough for US forces to crack. It is riven with Sunni insurgents, who have easy access to western hotbeds like Fallujah and Ramadi.

"The population supports the insurgents because they hate the Americans, and the Iraqi Army and police, and everyone who is against their extremist ideas," says Baghdadi. But, he says: "If you catch and kill the terrorists in Amiriyah, it would end it."