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Mixed welcome for Baghdad surge

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 20, 2007


Iraqi and American forces are meeting mixed results – that often vary street by street and day by day – as they struggle to regain control of Baghdad.

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Two days of relative calm in the capital prompted Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to declare a "dazzling success" in the security clampdown, as officials reported an 80 percent drop in violence.

Some neighborhoods are seeing tentative early progress in this city of 6 million, where a surge of Iraqi and American forces started last week. The effort is meant to replace rampant violence with security, crush militants, and enable tens of thousands of people displaced by sectarian fighting to return to their homes.

But the relative calm has been followed by car and suicide bombs that killed 60 on Sunday and at least 10 more Monday.

Throughout Baghdad, the security plan is being viewed through a sectarian lens, despite Mr. Maliki's promise to pummel equally Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias.

For example, buoyed by hope that he could return home after being forced out by Sunni insurgents, Moayad entered his street Sunday behind Iraqi commandos backed by Americans. [Editor's note: The original version misstated when the Iraqi-American operation against Sunni insurgents took place.]

The carpenter and 50 other Shiite residents were pleased to see a dozen insurgents arrested, cuffed, and blindfolded.

But as they picked through their trashed houses in the religiously mixed Al Amel neighborhood, their sense of safety was short-lived. "When [the Iraqi commandos] finished, an American officer came and said to release [the insurgents]," says Moayad and other witnesses. "Even the Iraqi officers were very angry, and went back to their base."

While inexplicable, that decision drew angry reactions from Shiites there that wanted to return home – and highlights the colliding sectarian interests at play as US and Iraqi forces seek to impose order.

When those Sunnis who had occupied their houses were released in Al Amel – two of whom had attempted to kill him one month ago, he says – Moayad and other Shiite returnees had no choice but to depart again.

"I think the Americans want the security plan to fail," he asserts. "I was very hopeful [when it was announced]. But today, after the Americans released these insurgents, I will never respect US troops again."

A US military spokesman said he could not yet comment upon the specific incident by press time, but said it would be pursued: "This is serious allegation, and we're definitely going to be looking into it," said US Army Sgt. Matthew Roe.

Monday in Al Amel district, where Moayad once lived, Iraqi commandos driving through came under fire from Sunni insurgents. One Iraqi soldier was killed and three wounded in an attack in which residents joined with their rifles – later the Iraqi commander thanked them, witnesses said – to quell the insurgent shooting.

Maliki said the bombs "confirm the defeat of these perpetrators and their failure in confronting our armed forces, which are determined to cleanse the dens of terrorism."

But the string of bombings show how difficult reining in Iraq's violence will be. One attack Monday left two US soldiers dead and at least 17 wounded when a bomb exploded in a sophisticated attack on an American-Iraqi base north of Baghdad.

Daily average of deaths drops