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Baghdad sees resurgence of bomb, mortar attack deaths

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Nearly two weeks into the newest Baghdad security plan, the daily count of murder victims dumped on the city's streets has declined significantly, a likely sign that Shiite Muslim militia groups aligned with the Iraqi government have reined in their members or sent them out of the capital.

But deaths from bombings and mortar attacks, after an initial decline, have returned to the levels of the previous two months, suggesting that the plan's initial measures have had little impact on the Sunni insurgent groups believed to be responsible for most of that violence.

U.S. and Iraqi officials have released only limited information about what steps they've taken to secure the city since the plan's official kickoff on Feb. 15. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki told President Bush last week that the plan, dubbed Operation Enforcing the Law, so far had been a "dazzling success." U.S. officials have been more cautious, saying that it may be months before the plan can be labeled a success or a failure.

Statistics compiled from official daily reports of the Interior Ministry and other Iraqi government sources, as well as interviews in 20 Baghdad neighborhoods about the plan's initial measures, however, show that some early judgments are possible about the plan's effectiveness. With most members of Congress expressing skepticism about the plan's prospects for success, such information could prove useful in the debate over Bush's plan to commit a total of 17,500 additional troops to the plan in the coming months.

From Dec. 1, 2006, through Feb. 14, the number of people killed in public places from violent attacks averaged 14.8 a day. From Feb. 15 through Monday, the number declined, but just barely, to 13.8. Car bombs were up slightly, from an average of 1.2 a day to 1.6, while roadside bombs were identical at 1 per day.

Injuries, on average, rose from 40.4 a day to 52.8 since the start of the plan, while bodies dumped by death squads declined from 22.8 a day to 14.6.

The increase in car bombs is particularly troubling. Members of Shiite militias often have cited Sunni car bombings as the driving force for their activities, which include targeting Sunnis for kidnapping and execution. On Sunday, the government announced new measures to stop car bombs, including prohibitions against parking or standing along major streets.

But American officials say such steps could force insurgents to turn to suicide bombers on foot, as they did on Sunday when a woman detonated herself at the predominately Shiite Mustansiriya University, killing nearly 50 people.

Maj. Gen. William Caldwell, the coalition's military spokesman in Baghdad, told reporters last week that 2,700 additional American troops have arrived in the capital and that "elements" of three Iraqi brigades also have been deployed—part of an Iraqi pledge to increase by about 7,700 the number of Iraqi soldiers patrolling Baghdad. The rest of the 17,500 U.S. troops are to be in place by May.

Official have said that 14 joint security stations, with bunks intended to house U.S. and Iraqi troops, have been set up in neighborhoods. As many as 16 more are planned.

But what those troops are doing or how many Iraqi soldiers are on the streets is unknown. U.S. officials blame the failure of earlier security efforts in Baghdad on the inability of Iraqi officials to deliver the number of soldiers and policemen promised. Caldwell has declined to provide specifics on the number of Iraqi troops deployed so far.

In the first week of the plan, the U.S. government reported, U.S. and Iraqi security forces mounted 20,000 patrols, twice the number in the previous week. By the second week, that number had grown to 32,000 patrols, with 63 weapons caches seized and 167 suspected terrorists detained.

But in the neighborhoods, the situation is decidedly mixed. Telephone interviews with more than 25 Baghdad residents in 20 of the city's districts showed that while some saw increased coalition activity, others had yet to see any change in the number of soldiers or police.

"The situation in Ghazaliya is really better since the start of the security plan because the existence of the different security forces—Iraqi and American," said Saif Ahmed, 35, a Sunni, describing a neighborhood in northwest Baghdad that's sharply divided along sectarian lines. "We used to hear shooting and mortars launching or falling, but not any more. There are no more insurgent groups, and no clashes happen. I could see the market restarted, but they still finish their work before sunset."

Zuhair Abdul Rahman, a 36-year-old taxi driver from the mixed Jihad section of southwest Baghdad, also reported hopeful signs.

"I saw today more than two families who came back to the neighborhood. The bakery, which was closed for more than six months, reopened in the last two days," Rahman said.

He said Iraqi police officers had moved into the area after snipers firing across sectarian dividing lines near his home killed two on each side. "I think the place is getting better and better," Rahman said.

But other neighborhoods have seen little change. In Maalef, a formerly mixed neighborhood in southwest Baghdad that's now dominated by Sunnis, a 26-year-old Shiite woman who asked not to be named said her situation remains dire.

"Shiite families can't leave their homes—they might be killed by armed groups," she said. "The armed groups challenge Shiite families to face them and fight, saying, `Come, bastard Shiite, and fight us if you are brave enough.' There is no security plan in there yet."

Ali Hayder, 67, a retired government worker living in the mixed Dakhiliya section of southeast Baghdad, said security forces are present only at well-established checkpoints.

"Iraqi forces, army or police, hardly ever frequent the area," Hayder said. "Nor has anything changed since the new security plan—no American convoys, nor any strangers."

The U.S. military has described two major operations as the centerpieces of the plan's first 10 days. One, Operation Polar Iron, was targeting primarily Sunni areas of southwest Baghdad. The other, Operation Arrow Strike IV, was at work in the northeast Shiite sections of Shaab and Ur.

On Monday, no car bombs were reported in Baghdad, but presumed Sunni insurgents were able to detonate an improvised explosive device that injured Iraq's Shiite vice president, Adel Abdul Mahdi, and killed five workers at the government building where he was attending a meeting. Mahdi's injuries were light, and he returned to work.

The decline in dumped bodies is largely thought to be the result of anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's decision to send his Mahdi Army forces underground or out of the city. Sadr hasn't been seen in a month, and American officials have said he's in Iran.

But a Sadr statement released over the weekend openly criticized the plan's inability so far to stop the car bombings, and it raised, at least implicitly, the threat that Shiite militias would become active again to prevent such attacks.

"Here we are watching car bombs continue to explode to harvest thousands of innocent lives from our beloved people in the middle of a security plan controlled by an occupier," news accounts quoted the statements as saying.

Caldwell told reporters last week that he believes the current plan will succeed where others have failed.

"One key difference between (the current plan) and previous iterations of the Baghdad security plan is that this time we intend to build Iraqi institutions and invest in neighborhoods, even as we conduct security operations," he said.

But interviews indicate that that portion of the plan remains vague, with few signs of any concrete steps to deliver services to any of the capital's neighborhoods.


(Mauer reports for the Anchorage Daily News. McClatchy Newspapers special correspondents Mohammed al Dulaimy, Laith Mammoudi, Sahar Issa and Dalia Hassam contributed to this report.)


(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.