Baghdadis invest hope in new security plan

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

In ads on state-controlled television and newspapers, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is promoting the new Baghdad security plan as the answer to stopping the violence between Shiites and Sunnis that has fractured Iraq's capital.

That sectarian battle – which has killed tens of thousands since an attack on the Shiite Golden Dome shrine in Samarra last February – claimed more Iraqi lives Monday. Three bombings killed at least 76 people in Baghdad markets on the anniversary, according to the Islamic calender, of the Samarra bombing.

Indeed, most Iraqis interviewed in Baghdad Monday about the new security plan, which involves deploying more Iraqi and US soldiers throughout the capital, framed the problem in sectarian terms. But they also expressed hope in the latest effort to restore calm.

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"I hope this allows troops to capture all the criminals in the Sunni mosques or in the Shiite mosques," says Feras al-Jabouri, a Sunni who lives in the Amariyah neighborhood, near the road to the airport in western Baghdad.

Mr. Jabouri says war-weary Baghdadis often can identify insurgents and members of sectarian militias. He predicts that many who are fed up with the devastating toll of bombings and sectarian attacks will eventually begin turning the culprits in to the newly arriving American and Iraqi forces.

Mr. Maliki seems to be hoping that Jabouri is right. In the government's campaign to promote the security plan, the prime minister is urging Iraqis to call hot lines or inform police if they have information about insurgents or militias.

But Jabouri worries that the armed militants, whom the plan intends to target, have learned how to evade major crackdowns in security. "They can run away for a few months. When everything is quiet, they will return back to their crimes."

Muthena Mohammed, a secular Shiite who lives in the southern Baghdad neighborhood al-Bayaa, says he wants to get revenge for attacks on his own house. But he is waiting to see if the US and Iraqi forces will mete out justice for him.

Mr. Mohammed says he knows who is targeting him. "They are my neighbors," he says.

"[Under] the new plan, they should detain these people so that I can go back to my home, go back to my job, to continue my work. If I go back to my home and the terrorists or insurgents or my neighbors are there and I find them, I will kill them because this is a revenge case."

Many Iraqis will be watching what militant groups are targeted during the gradual crackdown, which has begun, and which Maliki said will be sped up this week, as a measure of any possible sectarian bias within the Shiite-led government. The government has said it will target Shiite and Sunni militias equally.

Ali Fakher, a Shiite who lives in Sadr City, says both sides are so entrenched in fighting and the cycle of revenge that establishing real security will take time.

The solution is that they should put Iraqi troops in charge instead of having the Mahdi Army controlling Shiite areas and Sunni "terrorists" control the Sunni neighborhoods, he says.

As sectarian violence has spiraled in the past year since the Samarra shrine was bombed, some Iraqis like Mohammed say they can't rely on US or Iraqi forces to protect them.

"We created an armed group carrying AK-47s to protect our new place ... If the situation becomes good we will leave our machine guns and we will be friends and good neighbors. We know there is a serious [intention] from the new troops to do their mission in a good way but this will take a lot of time," he says.

In another largely Shiite neighborhood in Baghdad this week, armed men drove into the neighborhood at least twice and pulled captives out of the vehicle's trunk and killed them in the street, even though a contingent of US and Iraqi soldiers are based in a nearby building.

Three separate blasts rocked Baghdad Monday at noon. An attack at the popular Shorja market, Baghdad's oldest, set ablaze an eight-story warehouse. A separate roadside bomb at the Bab al-Sharji market, also in central Baghdad, killed five. Officials said 164 people were wounded.

The Shorja market, the main supplier for countless small shops in the capital and central Iraq, has been bombed frequently.

The bombings took place as Maliki said Iraq had no future unless a US-backed Iraqi security push against militants in Baghdad succeeded. "We have great confidence that Iraqis have realized that no one has a future in this country if we don't terminate the terrorists," he said after holding 15 minutes of silence in remembrance of the Samarra bombing, which under the Gregorian calendar was on Feb. 22, 2006.

Iraq's top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani urged followers not to seek revenge against Sunnis. Mr. Sistani said the Samarra bombing, blamed on Sunni militants, plunged Iraq into a cycle of "blind violence."

"We call on the believers as they mark this sad occasion and express their feelings ... to exercise maximum levels of restraint and not to do or say anything which would harm our Sunni brothers who are innocent for what happened and who do not accept it," Sistani said in a statement.

The reclusive Sistani, who lives in the holy city of Najaf, is regarded as a voice of moderation. Sistani, who heads the Shiite religious establishment, or Marjaiya, has repeatedly urged Shiites not to get sucked into sectarian conflict.

Jill Carroll contributed from Cairo; material from Reuters was used.

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