Security in Iraq still elusive

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 9, 2007 

BAGHDAD — When President Bush announced in January what the White House called a “New Way Forward” in Iraq, he said that Iraqi and American troops would improve security while the Iraqi government improved services. Responsibility for security in most of Iraq would be turned over to Iraqi security forces by November.

With better security would come the breathing room needed for political reconciliation, Bush said.

With less than a week to go before the White House delivers a congressionally mandated report on that plan, none of this has happened.

Army Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, and Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, are scheduled to appear on Monday before two House of Representatives committees to discuss security and politics in Iraq. The White House assessment, which must be delivered by Sept. 15, is expected to hail security gains and hold out hope for improvement — if U.S. troops are given more time.

But interviews with Iraqis, statistics on violence gathered independently by McClatchy Newspapers and a review of developments in the country since the U.S. began increasing troop strength here last February provide little reason for optimism.

Baghdad has become more segregated. Sunni Muslims in the capital now live in ghettos encircled by concrete blast walls to stop militia attacks and car bombs. Shiite militias continue to push to control the city’s last mixed Sunni-Shiite neighborhoods in the southwest, by murdering and intimidating Sunni residents and, sometimes, their Shiite neighbors. Services haven't improved across most of the capital — the international aid group Oxfam reported in July that only 30 percent of Iraqis have access to clean water, compared with 50 percent in 2003 — and tens of thousands of Iraqis are fleeing their homes each month in search of safety.

Iraqi security forces remain heavily infiltrated by militias, and political leaders continue to intervene in their activities.

Civilian deaths haven't decreased in any significant way across the country, according to statistics from the Iraqi Interior Ministry, and numbers gathered by McClatchy Newspapers show no consistent downward trend even in Baghdad, despite military assertions to the contrary. The military has provided no hard numbers to back the claim.

The only sign of progress is in the homogenous Sunni Arab province of Anbar, where tribes have turned on al Qaida in Iraq and established relative security in a once violent area. But that success has little to do with the 4,000 U.S. troops who were sent to Anbar as part of the surge of 30,000 additional troops to Iraq. Instead, it began more than four months earlier, with the formation last September of the Anbar Salvation Council to fight the escalating terror of Sunni extremists. Officials agree that the anti-Islamist coalition in Anbar has yet to ally itself with the Shiite-led government in Baghdad, and a recent National Intelligence Estimate warned that it might even threaten it.

Elsewhere in Iraq, violence continues to flourish. In the north since the surge began, suspected Sunni extremists have carried out some of the deadliest terror attacks of the war, killing hundreds in car and truck bombings.

In the southern city of Basra, death tolls have increased as rival Shiite militias square off for control.

American politicians have focused on the Iraqi government’s inability to meet a series of benchmarks designed to mark steps toward reconciliation. A Government Accountability Office report last week said that the Iraqi government has failed to meet 11 of the 18 benchmarks and had partially met only four others.

A preliminary White House report in July gave better marks but still pronounced little hope that compromise was near on key issues such as the division of oil revenues, the role in government of former members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath party and the setting of a schedule for provincial elections. The National Intelligence Estimate by the country’s 16 intelligence agencies concurred last month.

Bush administration officials are expected to praise recent agreements by some Iraqi leaders and Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki to work toward compromise. But Maliki’s cabinet still has nearly as many vacancies as it has sitting ministers, and no major legislation governing Iraq’s major issues, including a militia disarmament program, has made it to the floor of the Iraqi parliament.

Last week, the parliament, back from its summer vacation, barely had a quorum in its first meetings.

BAGHDAD

Taking control of Iraq’s capital city was at the center of Bush’s surge strategy in January. At least half the U.S. troop surge is taking place here and surrounding suburbs, where the U.S. focused on establishing so-called joint security outposts in Iraqi neighborhoods to be closer to areas where sectarian violence was claiming dozens of lives each day.

The military threw up concrete walls across the capital to foil car bombs and stop Shiite militia members or Sunni insurgents from entering targeted neighborhoods. One military official said U.S. troops were erecting walls as “fast as they could build them.” Most “hardened” neighborhoods, encircled with towering gray walls and with single entrances and exits, are Sunni enclaves, military officials said.

The result is a city now sharply divided into sectarian boroughs where the battle lines have only hardened. Some Baghdad residents say they feel somewhat safer in their neighborhoods, but they fear traveling anywhere else in the capital.

Falah Amin, 52, a Sunni from Adhamiyah, called her neighborhood in northeast Baghdad a prison. Adhamiyah was among the first neighborhoods to be walled off by the U.S. military to protect it from Sunni car bombs and Shiite militias.

“We’ve been separated from the rest of our city as if we have the plague,” Amin said.

The neighborhood, Amin said, is virtually empty. Those left don’t have the money or connections to leave, she said.

“Is this to keep us safe or to keep all those outside the wall from seeing what is taking place inside the walled area?” she asked.

Amin expects the worst if U.S. troops pull out and leave Adhamiyah to the Iraqi security forces and a government she doesn't trust.

“First, they will empty Baghdad of the Sunnis, then they will think about security, real security, not now.”

Even Shiite residents are concerned. “If the U.S. troops leave, (the Shiite militias) will be free and we will have a Shiite Taliban,” said Mohammed al Kabi, 39, a Shiite and once hard-line follower of Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr. “I don’t believe that the Iraqi government can control the security situation because some of the high-ranking officials cooperate with the militias.”

Outside the walled-in neighborhoods, the push to drive Sunnis from Shiite neighborhoods continues in a city that U.S. military officers say has gone from being 65 percent Sunni to being 75 percent Shiite.

Late last year, Sadr's Mahdi Army militia had moved from Baghdad’s mostly Shiite eastern half across the Tigris River to the Sunni-dominated western half, pushing Sunnis out of the city’s northwest. That campaign has continued during the surge, with the Mahdi Army fighting to control the Jihad, Bayaa, Amil and Saidiyah neighborhoods in the city’s southwest.

The push is particularly evident in Saidiyah, where Sunnis and Shiites are displaced daily. Military experts say that if the Shiite militias take control of the area, the Shiites will have limited Sunnis in the capital to just a few enclaves.

Unidentified bodies continue to show up daily in Baghdad, though the pace is lower than it was last December, when 1,030 bodies were found, according to statistics compiled by McClatchy Newspapers. The biggest drop came between December and January, before the U.S. began adding troops and after Sadr told his troops to lie low. Since February, when the first additional troops arrived, the trend has been inconsistent — dropping to 596 in February, rising in May to 736, and then dropping again to 428 in August.

Some military officials and many residents attribute the generally lower numbers not to the U.S. security plan, but to the purges in mixed neighborhoods that have left militants with fewer people to kill.

There’s little evidence that Baghdad residents are feeling safer and returning to homes they’d fled, said Dana Graber Ladek of the International Organization for Migration, which tracks refugee movements. Of an estimated 1 million Iraqis who’ve fled their homes since February 2006, 83 percent are from Baghdad, the IOM says.

“There have been very few returns,” Ladek said. Those that have come back have done so only briefly to gather belongings. “They are waiting for long-term stability.”

ANBAR

No one disputes that Anbar province, once the heart of the Sunni insurgency, is far more secure now than it was this time last year. But what credit American troops can claim for that and how likely it is to remain that way are hotly debated.

The tribal rebellion against al Qaida in Iraq began in September 2006, well before the surge was even contemplated. That’s when tribal leaders, fed up with al Qaida in Iraq’s attacks on moderate Sunnis and its efforts to impose strict Islamic fundamentalism, formed the Anbar Salvation Council to battle the group.

Tribal sheik Fassal Gaoud, a former Anbar governor, told McClatchy Newspapers in June that the tribes previously had asked for U.S. help in attacking the group, but had been rebuffed. By the time U.S. troops began working with the tribes, the battle against al Qaida was well under way. Gaoud, however, was killed in a bombing at the Mansour Melia hotel in central Baghdad in July in the midst of the U.S. surge.

“We did in three months what they couldn't do in four years," Ali Hatam Ali al Suleiman, another tribal leader, told McClatchy in June.

Still, Anbar is the scene of extraordinary security measures.

Ramadi, the province’s capital, has been subdivided by towering concrete walls that divide neighborhoods from one another and stop trucks and cars from traveling in most of the capital.

In Fallujah, Anbar’s largest city, only cargo trucks were allowed to drive through the city for three months. Now police are allowing only 200 civilian vehicles, primarily taxis, to circulate in the city. Fallujah’s 350,000 residents must all carry special government-issued identification cards.

Residents complain that the city has become a police state and that police frequently torture and kill residents with any suspected ties to al Qaida in Iraq. Residents who complain about the police also are abused, they say.

Violent deaths, however, have dropped, from 36 in January, one month before the surge, to 11 in August. About 63 people were killed in June during a bloody fight to control the city, according to local hospitals.

There are few indications that the campaign against al Qaida has brought the Sunni tribes closer to the Shiite-led Maliki government. Last month, Maliki told McClatchy Newspapers that he won’t work with certain Sunni groups that the Americans are working with, and other Shiite politicians have worried that the tribes will oppose the government, a concern echoed by last month’s National Intelligence Estimate.

ELSEWHERE IN IRAQ

In other areas in Iraq, violence has increased and conditions are deteriorating — Oxfam estimates that 28 percent of Iraqi children are malnourished, compared with 19 percent before the U.S. invasion. No Iraqi McClatchy spoke to in preparation for this article said he or she had confidence in the government.

Sunni militants remain openly active in the north. Three weeks ago, fighters for the Islamic State of Iraq, an al Qaida in Iraq front organization, paraded through the streets of Mosul, the capital of Nineveh province, said tribal sheik Fawaz Mohammed al Jarba.

"It's very bad," Jarba said. "There are so many attacks that never make it in the media."

In August, the largest attack in the history of the Iraq war killed at least 322 people in two impoverished villages in Nineveh province, one of a series of deadly bombings, each of which briefly held the title as the deadliest so far of the year.

A blast in March killed 152 people in Nineveh’s Tal Afar, and 150 people were killed in an explosion in Amerli in Salah ad Din province in July. A double suicide bombing in July left at least 85 people dead in the northern city of Kirkuk.

In the Shiite-dominated south, violence is rising as Shiite militias vie with one another for control.

At least 52 people were killed this month when fighting broke out between the Mahdi Army and the rival Badr Organization during a religious festival in Karbala.

In Basra, the strategic port city on the Persian Gulf, those militias and one from the Fadhila party have fought pitched battles for control, with the death toll rising throughout the year, from 59 in January to 134 in May. In August, 90 people died there.

Overall, civilian casualties in Iraq appear to have remained steady throughout the siege, though numbers are difficult to come by.

According to the Iraqi Ministry of Interior, 984 people were killed across Iraq in February, and 1,011 died in violence in August. No July numbers were released because the ministry said the numbers weren't clear.

But an official in the ministry who spoke anonymously because he wasn't authorized to release numbers said those numbers were heavily manipulated.

The official said 1,980 Iraqis had been killed in July and that violent deaths soared in August, to 2,890.

(Special correspondents Laith Hammoudi, Mohammed al Dulaimy and Sahar Issa contributed from Baghdad. Jamal Naji contributed from Fallujah and Ali Omar al Basri contributed from Basra.)

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