Iraqi and US forces began a security buildup in Baghdad Wednesday in a bid by the newly formed government to control insurgent and sectarian attacks in the capital.
The open-ended clampdown is to be one of the largest security operations in Baghdad since the 2003 fall of Saddam Hussein.
Operation Forward Together, which involves more than 40,000 Iraqi and some 7,200 Coalition forces, is a key test of the promises made by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to end the bloodshed that has taken more than 6,000 lives already this year.
But one day after President Bush made a triumphant surprise visit to Baghdad – meeting Tuesday with a somber-looking Mr. Maliki, who has tried to assert his independence by criticizing some US actions – Iraqis waited anxiously for the crackdown, closing some shops and stocking up on food.
Senior officers said the clashes would probably break out in the Sunni districts that will be main targets of Shiite-led forces.
"Today we are starting to use tanks and armored personnel carriers – we will deal very strongly if [insurgents] resist us," says an Iraqi Army major. "When we enter hot areas, we will try to keep the people safe, to arrest criminals and insurgents," says the major, on duty in northern Baghdad. "But the solution is not in our hands. It is with tribal sheikhs, the clerics, and the people themselves, because they are the root of this problem."
In an acknowledgment of that, Maliki on Wednesday balanced the military effort with the possibility of holding talks with "rebels who are opposed to the political process." Maliki said that "if their hands are not stained with blood, we will open the door to [insurgents] for dialogue."
Maliki called on all factions to "express their support" for the operation, saying that the sole objective is to "protect the lives of the people."
The strategy is to secure roads into the capital, expand the curfew, and hit insurgent hideouts in raids that could prompt US air attacks in support. Heavy-handed raids during a similar operation in May 2005 led to a spike in insurgent attacks.
Iraqi forces are trying to capitalize on the death last week of Abu Musab al- Zarqawi, the high-profile leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, as well as a squirt of optimism that has come from completing the new government.
"We are expecting that clashes will erupt in predominantly Sunni areas," Maj. Gen. Mahdi al-Gharrawi told the Associated Press. "The terrorists will escalate their violence especially during the first week as revenge for the killing of al-Zarqawi."
The security plan will "enable Iraqis to live in peace in Baghdad," promised Maliki, echoing numerous Iraqi leaders before him. "The raids during this plan will be very tough ... because there will be no mercy toward those who show no mercy to our people."
Iraqis, weary of the constant violence during three years of US occupation and weak Iraqi government, are making preparations. Those in troubled neighborhoods have begun to stock up on food and are moving family members – especially military-age sons – to safer areas. They're also hiding extra guns.
"In this situation, one gun is not enough," says a man called Saif, who lives in a district south of the airport road that is heavily populated by Hussein-era officers, Baathists, and intelligence officials. "Because we don't know who will raid us, we should keep more than one gun."
Each Iraqi family can keep one assault rifle, and many armed civilians emerge at night as locally formed protection committees seal off their own neighborhoods. Saif says any police or military force will need to bring senior officers – or a US escort – if they want to search his house.
"We should attack [insurgents] within their safe houses," says Iraqi policeman Haitham Sami, as he searched a suspect car Wednesday after a car bombing. "As much as we can, we will keep safe neighborhoods safe."
Sectarian violence has flared since February, largely due to the alleged presence of death squads in the Shiite-led Ministry of Interior and other security forces. In some cases, young Sunni men are attempting to get a second identity card made, that might change their Sunni name "Omar," to the Shiite name "Amar."
As the crackdown loomed, some Iraqis were keeping identity cards close at hand so that they could produce them quickly for officers conducting raids. And they were stocking up on nonperishable canned goods and rice. The cost of 30 eggs jumped from 3,750 Iraqi dinar ($2.55) on Monday to 4,500 dinar ($3.06) the next day.
One focus of the raids will be the insurgent stronghold of Dora, in southern Baghdad. Property prices there have dropped by half in the past year, a sign of the neighborhood's instability. On Wednesday, only a tenth of the shops there opened.
"The militia [death squads] will come with the Iraqi police in a formal way, so they can kidnap and kill us," says one worried Sunni security guard, who asked not to be named.
The man planned to move his wife and three children to another area later in the day Wednesday. He says the police often refuse to collect bodies from the streets, and claims that the killing of Sunnis in Dora by Shiites "is very organized."
But there were many reminders of the daily violence across Baghdad even as the security operation gathered pace. Early in the morning, a university student passed American forces defusing a roadside bomb near his house in southwest Baghdad.
Later, during his exam in the northwest Sunni neighborhood of Adhamiya, gunfire erupted. One witness described a man in a bulletproof vest blasting his gun into the sky.
Iraqi troops who deployed to the main square with five tanks said their arrival sparked shooting into the air from insurgents – and that the soldiers responded by also shooting into the air. Later reports spoke of a gun battle, but there were no reports of injuries.
"Everyone showed their muscle and their power," said one Sunni toy-shop owner nearby. The mutual shooting lasted more than an hour. "These things [sectarian killings] will never end, because of the hatred in the depths of their hearts. Some people even say: 'If my father was a Shiite, I would kill him.' "
Bombs also took their toll, despite the security boost. A woman and her son died when a car bomb ended a shopping trip for a new bedroom set for the soon-to-be groom. The wood panels for the furniture were already loaded into the family's truck in the northern district of Al-Qahirah.
The owner of a building damaged in the blast blamed insurgents, and said it was revenge on the local people for calling the police the day before to disarm another bomb.
"If people don't cooperate, then everything will fail," says Sadiq Hamid, the building owner. "But if people agree to cooperate, [the security operation] will meet success."