New York Times
February 12, 2007
By Richard A. Oppel Jr. and Damien Cave
BAGHDAD, Feb. 11 — American troops locked down a large industrial area of eastern Baghdad on Sunday while Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, without indicating how he would do it, vowed to speed the deployment of Iraqi forces throughout the war-ravaged capital.
American commanders described the operation in the area, the Rusafa district, as an early taste of the large-scale sweeps expected in eastern Baghdad to take back some measure of control from militias. Soldiers from the Third Stryker Brigade Combat Team, from Ft. Lewis, Wash., were fired on by insurgents with automatic rifles. The soldiers detained 10 Iraqis while searching for a car-bomb manufacturing site in the area, a violent sectarian fault line between a Shiite enclave and the insurgent-ridden Sunni neighborhood of Fadhil.
The operations in eastern Baghdad are to be a centerpiece of the so-called surge of 21,000 troops that many here view as a last-ditch effort to save the country from all-out civil war. Eastern Baghdad “is a focal point for us right now,” said Brig. Gen. John Campbell, deputy commander of coalition troops in Baghdad. American-led forces say they have conducted 3,400 patrols and detained 140 suspects in the past week.
Mr. Maliki, who is under immense pressure from his Shiite backers who say their neighborhoods are becoming increasingly vulnerable to attacks by Sunni insurgents, said Sunday that he had ordered an accelerated deployment of Iraqi soldiers and policemen to areas considered sanctuaries for insurgents and militias. “It will not start in just one area, but in all areas at the same time,” he said.
But it remains unclear just how fast that deployment will take place, because only a portion of the Iraqi forces called for under the new Baghdad security plan are in position. And if the Iraqis who accompanied American soldiers during the 14-hour mission on Sunday were an accurate barometer, most are skeptical that the latest plan will make much difference. Similar operations in the past have largely failed.
“With all these security plans before this one, nothing has happened,” said an Iraqi lawyer who spoke to a few soldiers near the Bab al-Sheik police station after he finished dealing with one of his cases.
The American brigade commander, Col. Steve Townsend, whose unit is part of the Second Infantry Division, said later that he believed most Iraqis would welcome more American troops. “I don’t think the security plan is a hard sell,” he said. “I just think that at this point they are a bit jaded.”
After his soldiers stopped in a Shiite neighborhood close to Fadhil, one middle-aged Iraqi man told them, “The government is tired, and we are tired too.” He explained that people were reluctant to identify insurgents because “then they go and kill them after that.”
As he spoke, the crackle of automatic gunfire erupted to the southwest, and Americans and nearby Iraqis dove behind vehicles. Taking cover behind his 19-ton Stryker armored vehicle, Colonel Townsend looked through the sight of his rifle and drew a bead on several suspicious men.
“See the radio antenna?” he asked one of his soldiers, as they both looked through sights. “Two fingers from that. A cluster of heads.” But they did not return fire, because it was not clear who fired the shots.
Nearby, the Iraqis seemed unruffled. “They always fire from over there,” one of the onlookers said. “Over there” was in the direction of Fadhil. Residents in the largely Shiite districts around Fadhil described that densely packed Sunni neighborhood as a place most would never go to.
“They drive their cars out from there, kidnap their victims, and return back to Fadhil,” said Brig. Gen. Latif Muhammed, a police commander who oversees areas near Fadhil.
Residents in and around Fadhil said they hoped the presence of American soldiers would quiet the fighting that has trapped some in their homes for weeks. They said their streets and alleys have become a frontline battleground for Shiite fighters from neighborhoods to the northeast, near Sadr City, and Sunni gunmen who have sought to protect their turf from the Mahdi Army, the militia based in Sadr city that is loyal to Moktada al-Sadr.
Shiites in Sadriya, one neighborhood bordering Fadhil, have said Sunnis from Fadhil have been after Shiites for months — as shown, they said, by the truck bomb that killed at least 135 people last week.
In Fadhil, however, three Sunni residents said the fighting started about five months ago, when the Sadr organization sought to open a mosque and office in the area and local leaders refused. “It’s like we have marks on our foreheads,” said a widow in her 40s who would only give her name as Um Haider. “They know we’re from Fadhil and they shoot at us.”
She also said Shiite officials had refused to let her collect her husband’s pension, and that the man who once provided food ration cards had been killed. Residents, she said, shoot at the Iraqi Army and the police because they believe they are allies of the Mahdi Army. “If the Americans are here, the Mahdi Army will be afraid to attack,” she said.
But Uday Ahmed, 31, a Sunni whose family lost three restaurants in the bombing at the Sadriya marketplace, was less sanguine. “This is maybe the 10th time that the Americans have raided in Fadhil and nothing has changed,” he said. “I don’t think that it will work this time either.”
Violence continued elsewhere on Sunday. In Adwar, southeast of Tikrit, a suicide truck bomber slammed into a police station in the morning, killing at least nine policemen and prisoners, and wounding at least 10 others.
The United States military also announced the deaths of two soldiers. One died after being shot Saturday during combat operations in Diyala Province; another was killed in an attack on Sunday when he was on patrol in western Baghdad.
In Ramadi, a fuel tanker exploded at a police checkpoint, killing at least three people and wounding at least eight. Minutes later a suicide bomber tried to enter the area but was stopped by the police. He detonated the bomb and killed himself and one policeman.
Baghdad was relatively quiet on Sunday. A car bomb in Mansour killed one person and wounded three, an Interior Ministry official said. The authorities also found 27 bodies throughout the city, many showing signs of torture.