Prague, 27 May 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Iraqi Defense Minister Sa'dun al-Dulaymi said yesterday that the new security initiative entails surrounding the capital "like a bracelet surrounds a wrist." He predicts it will be a blow to the insurgency.
The operation is reportedly due to start as early as next week and will be by far the largest in Baghdad carried out by Iraqi forces. It is not known how long the operation will last.
According to the U.S. officials, American forces will back Iraqi forces with logistical support and air cover.
The United States praised the plans and said it indicates the Iraqi government is making progress in its effort to stem the insurgency. U.S. Brigadier General Carter Ham, who is deputy director of regional operations, said at a Pentagon briefing on 26 May that the move is very encouraging.
"I just came back from Baghdad. There were soldiers and policemen on every corner and they seem motivated. I think they are capable."
"I think this is great news," Ham said. "And the Iraqi minister of defense, minister of interior, talking about an operation like this certainly conveys the recognition by the transitional government the importance of counterinsurgency operations. And while it's not appropriate for us to talk about future operations, I think this does convey the growing confidence and capability of the Iraqi security forces. And I think that -- in and of itself -- is a positive indicator."
Ham did not comment on how many U.S. troops will participate in the operation.
More than 620 people have been killed in a wave of attacks by insurgents following the approval of most of the Iraqi cabinet on 28 April. Stopping the violence is the most pressing task of the fledgling government.
Yahia Said, a researcher on Iraq and other transitional nations at the London School of Economics, just recently returned from a trip to Iraq. He says the announced operation looks like a public-relations move.
"The current government needs to do something visible and bold to show that it is dealing with the security situation. And that's the main motivation behind the operation in Baghdad. It's more of a publicity thing rather than an effective security measure," Said says.
He says much of the planning and perpetration of the violence in Baghdad originates in the capital itself. Said notes that military crackdowns on insurgents often lead to more resentment against the authorities, giving as an example the situation that developed after the United States decided to enter Al-Fallujah last autumn.
Said also questions whether concentrating such large numbers of troops near Baghdad might expose other parts of the country to insurgent activity. He also wonders if setting up scores of checkpoints around the capital might create more targets for militants.
The future success of the operation largely depends on the efficiency of the new Iraqi security forces.
Iraq currently has 89,000 security personnel attached to the Interior Ministry. This includes police, highway patrol, and some commando units. Another 75,800 troops are in the country's military. Such small numbers of available personnel has led some to questions whether Iraq's security organs can afford to allocate 40,000 men for a single operation.
Said believes they can, saying the Iraqi forces have the numbers and the capability to successfully cordon the city of more than 5 million inhabitants.
"There are tens of thousands of them. I just came back from Baghdad. There were soldiers and policemen on every corner and they seem motivated. I think they are capable. The problem is political, it's not in terms of their capability," Said says.
Said says a political solution is needed to bring stability back to Iraq, as some Iraqis see the present government as illegitimate. It includes not only the integration of the Sunni minority into the country's political life, but also having some sort of timetable for the withdrawal of foreign troops. Said says Iraqi security forces lose respect when the Iraqi people view them as being supported by U.S. troops.
Meanwhile, it remains unclear if the top Al-Qaeda leader in Iraq, Mus'ab al-Zarqawi, is still alive.
Brigadier General Carter Ham said during yesterday's Pentagon briefing that too much attention is being given to one personality and that al-Zarqawi's death would unlikely mean the end of Al-Qaeda in Iraq.
"While Zarqawi certainly is an important character, his organization is bigger than just one guy. And so his demise, whether he'd be captured -- which would be preferable -- or if he's killed or wounded, that will not cause Al-Qaeda in Iraq to cease to function. So it is important, certainly. But if he's killed or captured, it won't cause the organization to necessarily crumble," Ham says.
However, Ham says the United States is very interested in the veracity of recent reports that al-Zarqawi's had been wounded.