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Campaign to bring peace to Baghdad's neighborhoods faces hurdles

BAGHDAD, Iraq—American 1st Lt. Jake Hughes and his platoon from Apache Company of the 1-23rd Infantry had high hopes as they contemplated the predawn raid that was about to take place on the walled-in Shiite Muslim mosque in the Baghdad neighborhood of Ghazaliyah.

This was how it was supposed to work, as Americans begin ceding more responsibility to Iraqis one month into an aggressive campaign to bring peace to Baghdad. The Iraqi Interior Ministry had provided the intelligence. A dozen Iraqi soldiers were to conduct the raid. The Americans were there strictly as backup.

But in Baghdad, hope comes in small doses.

It took the Iraqis 15 minutes just to get into the mosque They used a piece of wood as a makeshift wedge in an attempt to open an iron gate, then gave up and scaled a wall.

As Hughes and the rest of his platoon retreated to the safety of their Stryker armored vehicles, the Iraqis spent another 30 minutes searching the mosque, only to discover no one inside. Nothing was found. It looked as if someone had been tipped off about the operation.

The results were similar later that morning after a house-to-house search in another part of Ghazaliyah, a mixed Sunni Muslim/Shiite neighborhood. Iraqi intelligence, with ties to the country's dominant Shiite political parties, appeared to focus exclusively on the homes of Sunni families who'd just moved into abandoned houses. Four people eventually were taken into custody, whisked away by Iraqi police, though it wasn't clear why.

Ghazaliyah is one of seven Baghdad neighborhoods initially targeted in Operation Together Forward, a security campaign launched Aug. 7 with 12,000 American and Iraqi soldiers.

Through last week, the U.S. military said 53,000 buildings had been searched, including 54 mosques. More than 1,200 weapons have been seized, and 91 people detained.

Officials point to the relative calm in nearby Ameriyah, a west Baghdad neighborhood, as evidence of the operation's success. But another neighborhood, Dora, in southern Baghdad, appears to be seeing more violence. On Sunday, as many as 50 homemade bombs were found during raids there.

Bodies continue to show up daily throughout Baghdad: 35 on Tuesday, bringing the total in the past five days to at least 170. Most of the victims have been found shot, blindfolded and with their hands tied behind their backs.

At a news conference Monday, Ministry of Defense spokesman Ali Askari said the increase in violence against civilians should be seen as evidence of the failure of insurgents to reach their real targets: Iraqi security forces.

"The terrorists moved to attack the civilians to increase the sectarian violence," Askari said.

Ghazaliyah is a good example of the hurdles that the campaign faces. Once a neighborhood where Saddam Hussein rewarded midlevel bureaucrats and military commanders with upscale homes and larger than average lots, parts of it now are the front lines of a battle between sectarian militias and death squads.

American officials and residents say a northern part of the neighborhood is a target of anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia. Black crosses have been sprayed on the doors of Sunni residents, a warning that they should leave. Pro-Sadr graffiti are common.

Hughes, who's from Sullivan, Ill., can't wait to turn over the operation to the Iraqis. The 1-23rd, based at Fort Lewis, Wash., is trained for combat, with huge 16-ton, 8-wheeled Stryker vehicles that are equipped with .50-caliber machine guns and grenade launchers.

For the past month, though, the 1-23rd has been performing searches and setting up roadblocks in Baghdad during the day and patrolling for curfew violations and illegal weapons movements at night.

"I signed up for something different than this," Hughes lamented. "This is more of a policing action than a military action. But we're making progress. It may not seem like it on days like this, but you can see it in the longer run."

Sorting out who's doing what to whom remains difficult, however.

One man, a Sunni, showed Apache Company's commanding officer, Capt. Kevin Salge, a scar on his right arm. He said he'd been shot by a member of a death squad to drive home the point that his family should leave the nearby Shula neighborhood. That's when he fled to Ghazaliyah. Since he moved in April, his home has been raided three times, but he insists that any violence must come from outsiders, driving on the nearby highway.

"We had gunfire from here this past week and it wasn't coming from the highway," said Salge, 30, who's from Iowa City, Iowa.

"I would not know about that," said the man, who wrote his name on a piece of paper and promised to let the captain know of anything new.

But progress can be measured in many ways. Battalion commander Lt. Col. Avanulas Smiley, 40, of Tacoma, Wash., pointed out that even the Iraqi police, often the wild card in the operations, showed up to provide protection along the perimeters of the search, the first time that all elements of the Iraqi security forces had participated.

For some residents of Ghazaliyah, Iraqis taking over the searches from Americans also is a good sign, though for reasons different from Hughes'.

"There's a lot of resistance in our area," said Muhammed Saleh, a 28-year-old Sunni engineer in Ghazaliyah, referring to insurgents. "American presence usually means trouble because there will be a lot of operations against Americans, which means unrest for the rest of us."

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(McClatchy special correspondent Shatha al Awsy contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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