Mixed welcome for Baghdad surge

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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

Still, many Iraqis say they have seen some positive steps in the days since the surge officially came into effect last Thursday. And not just because several hundred Iraqis are reported to have been able to return home, or that the daily average of 50 dead bodies on the streets has dropped to single digits in recent days.

"People are very, very happy," with the replacement of a commando unit that refused to go after Shiite militiamen by a regular Iraqi Army unit in the southeast district of Zafaraniyeh, says a resident who could not be named.

"When they came 10 days ago, there was chaos and killing. Since then, I have not heard of a single person being killed," says the resident. It is the new Iraqi commander who is making the difference.

"He came and took the Shiite and Sunni clerics to lunch and told them: 'I am not a sectarian man, and all should be under the law, Sunni and Shiite,' " says the resident, quoting the new commander. " 'If you help me, we will help you. If you don't cooperate with me, you will be breaking the law, and I will crush you.' "

That commander has "made many changes and tells people he will be responsible for supplying all families with cooking fuel," says the Zafaraniyeh resident. He has also marked each official checkpoint with a large number – so people can more easily spot fake checkpoints – and his Iraqi forces are searching every vehicle, including police convoys. On Friday, a joint US-Iraq checkpoint there snagged a "police" colonel who proved to be an imposter after calls were made to the Ministry of Interior to check his identity.

The insurgent stronghold of Dora, with its Sunni majority, has also been a key target of US and Iraqi efforts since the Baghdad security plan was first announced more than a month ago. In a 3:30 a.m. raid a month back, US troops arrived in two helicopters, surrounded a house, and took away two key insurgents.

"They had very sure information," says Dora resident who watched the raid take place. "When [the US] captured these guys, many people had a good feeling, because these two people caused big problems. They forced many [Shiite] families to leave. They were known insurgents."

In subsequent raids, US and Iraqi forces have tread carefully, looking for information about suspect trouble-makers as much as breaking in doors and searching suspicious cars for weaponry and bombs. This resident was handed a scrap of paper, printed in Arabic, which gives a mobile phone number and e-mail address to pass on tips to a US infantry unit, and reads: "Please call this number, to tell about any terrorist activities."

While carefully behaved US troops and their Iraqi translators may glean some information this way, other actions undermine their cause. In one case, the brother of this Dora resident was searched. The family was told to wait in the kitchen. US troops left, and then as the Iraqis were leaving, one asked the family to "check their money." Indeed, nearly $200 in Iraqi currency had disappeared. The Iraqi officer – in a line the family does not believe–blamed the Americans, and then left.

Sectarian view of the surge

So far the surge has yielded little head-to-head confrontation between US forces and Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias. US officers say they expect both sides to have hidden their weapons or drifted away for the time being, until the surge passes.

Shiite areas controlled by the Mahdi Army, loyal to anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, are meant to be a particular US target because of links with death squads that have been killing dozens of Sunnis a day. Maliki's government, which relies on Mr. Sadr's supporter to rule, is reported to have pushed for Sunni areas to be cleaned up first.

Sunni leaders have cried foul, with Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi telling Al Jazeera TV on Sunday that leaks of the plan to Shiite militia chiefs meant a "golden opportunity for Iraq has been squandered."

But the perspective from Shiite areas is exactly the opposite.

"[Shiites] believe that this security plan is against the Shiites of Iraq – it's an American plan, [President George] Bush's plan, to limit the Shiites of Iraq," says a resident of Sadr City, the sprawling Shiite slum and Mahdi Army stronghold of northeast Baghdad.

"The dirty Iraqi troops with the Americans, they detain many, many people," the resident says, referring to a special Iraqi unit based at the Baghdad Airport that works with US forces in some cases. "If they see a picture of Moqtada in your house, they will detain you."

The cleric himself, this resident says, has ordered his followers – who battled US forces twice in 2004 – not to take on the Americans. Mahdi Army fighters confirm those orders.

"We are following Moqtada's orders, and if he says don't fight [the Americans], we won't," says a Mahdi Army fighter who took part in those 2004 uprisings, and asked not to be named. "We know America wants to make a mass killing of Sadrists, so we should avoid this, by following Moqtada's orders."

And the growing US presence is not universally rejected in Sadr City. "Sometimes they stop the bad people – it's a good service for us, and we should stop them. I feel safer," adds the resident. "Some people are happy with the [Iraqi] troops, and cook dinner for them."

But it may be some time before the Shiite residents of Al Amel, in south Baghdad, make peace with the US troops who they say enabled the release of the arrested Sunni insurgents on Sunday.

Al Amel resident Sadiq, who would not give his last name, fled over the New Year, after a gang of Sunnis – including three (former) friends – shot up his house one night, sending a message to multiple Shiite households to leave.

"We surrendered to reality," says Sadiq, who once ran a computer gaming center on the main street. "We are not fighters or armed. We just took our ID cards, and left our money and gold. We expected to go back."

But now that money and gold is stolen. Along with six computers he was keeping at home, after his business was forced to close. "Today, the important thing is to return back to my home," he says. "I have an unknown future."

So does Moayad, who would also only give his first name, who was attacked by two gunmen early one morning a month ago, as he went to clean his car. A video on his mobile phone shows the vehicle peppered with 15 rounds.

"When they came to assassinate me, they came without any masks, because they were sure they would kill me," says Moayad, who himself wore a mask during the Sunday operation, so he would not be recognized by insurgents.

He has received many phone calls, crudely threatening him and his family. And the same day that gunmen attacked him, he had another close call. Saying goodbye to other neighbors who had congratulated him on his good luck at surviving, he was standing in the doorway with his arm raised when a sniper shot through the cloth of his shirt at the armpit.

Three days later, out of money and ammunition, Moayad gave up his home.

"We are disappointed by the government and US soldiers," says Moayad. "In the future, if they don't help us, we will have to call on the militias and join them, even though that will not solve the problems."

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