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Iraq: Baghdad Plan Shows Progress, But Challenges Persist

The number of car bombs, such as this near the entrance to the Green Zone, has reportedly gone down (epa) March 26, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The first assessment by U.S. and Iraqi officials of the month-old Baghdad security operation, which was launched on February 14, has been positive. Initial signs indicate that the operation has significantly curbed violence in the Iraqi capital.

This is the third attempt to bring security to Baghdad since Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki came to power in May 2006, and many observers regard the current operation as the last chance to avert an all-out civil war in Iraq. And while the initial assessment has been promising, questions remain as to whether the plan will have a long-term effect in stemming the violence that has engulfed Baghdad.

Some Signs Of Improvement

At a March 14 press conference, Brigadier General Qasim al-Musawi, a spokesman for the Baghdad security operation, released statistics for the first month, saying that the overall death toll had dropped by 30 percent. He said that 1,440 civilians were killed from January 14 to February 14, compared to 265 killed from February 14 to March 14. During the first period, 3,192 civilians were wounded, while 781 were wounded during the second period.
"The results of the past 30 days cannot be assessed by the numbers of
explosions, car bombings, and acts of terrorism, but by the citizens'
feeling that a new, positive development has taken place."

Since the plan was launched, car bombings have dropped by 36 percent, mortar attacks by 47 percent, hand-grenade attacks by 70 percent, Katyusha rocket attacks by 35 percent, and suicide bombings have dropped by 33.3 percent.

Al-Musawi also said that during the earlier period, 19 militants were killed and 169 arrested, while 94 militants were killed and 713 arrested in the second period. Since February 14, 24 hostages have been freed and more than 2,000 displaced families have returned to their homes," he said.

Lieutenant General Abbud Qanbar, the commander of operations for the Baghdad security plan, stressed at the same March 14 press conference that Iraqi civilians were expressing optimism over the security plan.

"The results of the past 30 days cannot be assessed by the numbers of explosions, car bombings, and acts of terrorism, but by the citizens' feeling that a new, positive development has taken place to reassure a large sector of society about the situation," Qanbar said.

The centerpiece of the United States' part in the security operation is a troop "surge" that will eventually see an additional 21,500 U.S. forces in Baghdad and the restive Al-Anbar Governorate to the west. In a BBC interview on March 18, U.S. General David Petraeus, the commander of U.S.-led forces in Iraq, expressed cautious optimism, saying that the plan showed "encouraging signs", but he would have a better idea of the plan's success once all U.S. troops have been deployed in the coming months.

Al-Sadr: gone, but for how long? (epa file photo)

"By early June, we should then have everyone roughly in place -- and that will allow us to establish the density in partnership with Iraqi security forces that you need to really get a good grip on the security situation," Petraeus said.

Just Temporary Lull?

While initial statistics indicate that attacks in Baghdad have dropped off significantly, some Iraqi officials have indicated that the steep drop in violence is due to militia elements assuming a lower profile to avoid the security crackdown.

The Imam Al-Mahdi Army, the militia of radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, has become much less visible, for example. In fact, it has been widely reported in the Arab and Western press that al-Sadr himself may have left the country, to avoid being caught up in the security lockdown in Baghdad.

Major General William Caldwell, the spokesman for U.S.-led forces in Iraq, told reporters at a March 14 press briefing in Baghdad that al-Sadr's whereabouts were unknown and that he was probably outside Iraq.

However, several Sunni leaders, who accuse al-Sadr's militia of being responsible for the majority of sectarian attacks against Sunnis, contend that the militia will only "lay low" as long as the security crackdown continues, and that once the Baghdad operation has ended and U.S. forces have withdrawn, the militia will reemerge and sectarian violence will resume.

Sheikh Khalaf al-Alyan, the leader of the Sunni-led National Dialogue Council, claimed in a March 23 interview with "Al-Quds Press" that Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and al-Sadr had come to an agreement for the Al-Mahdi Army to be disbanded and its leaders sent abroad to avoid being captured by U.S. forces.

"The leaders of death squads and the Imam Al-Mahdi Army have been smuggled into Iran and those ranking second and third were sent to the south," al-Alyan said. "Most elements of this army were officially incorporated into the National Guard and [the forces of] the Interior Ministry in order to avoid confrontation with U.S. troops. This happened on the basis of an official letter signed by the prime minister in agreement with Muqtada al-Sadr," he added.

Indeed, the militia leadership realizes that time is on their side and the U.S. military most probably cannot keep up the troop levels needed to maintain the Baghdad security plan indefinitely, particularly in light of how unpopular the Iraq war has become in the eyes of the U.S. public.

Calls For Political Solution

While the security operation continues to attempt to bring security to Baghdad, some Iraqi leaders have stressed that the gains achieved by the Baghdad security plan will only be short-lived and that political reforms need to be instituted before the country will be secure.

Al-Mutlaq has called for a political solution (epa file photo)

In an interview with "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" on March 22, Salih al-Mutlaq, the leader of the Front for National Dialogue, said that the drop in attacks since the Baghdad security plan was instituted is due to the presence of a large contingent of U.S. forces that cannot remain indefinitely. He argued that only a legitimate political program that convinces marginalized Sunnis, who are believed to form the bulk of the insurgency, to give up their weapons and join the political process, is the only long-term solution to Iraq's security woes.

"We do not believe these [U.S.] forces will remain in their position for long and we do not believe Baghdad can endure such a situation and such an anomalous situation as this one," al-Mutlaq said. "Therefore, there is a need to seek a political program to solve the current problems. If this is not achieved, no logical solution can be found for the current situation."

Indeed, Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi made similar comments in a BBC interview on March 21 when he called for a dialogue to be opened with the insurgents and for political reforms to be carried out in order for Iraq to move beyond sectarian divisions.

"One of the political recipes might be that the Iraqis need to be convinced that to break up this polarization we have to go for, first of all, election-system reform and, second, to go for early elections," al-Hashimi said.

New Insurgent Tactics

Even in the little over a month that the Baghdad security operation has been in progress, there has been a noticeable shift in insurgent tactics, such as the use of chlorine-gas truck bombs. In low levels, chlorine gas causes respiratory problems and skin irritation, but it is lethal with heavy exposure.

On March 16, three separate suicide bombers driving trucks carrying chlorine gas detonated their vehicles in the restive Al-Anbar Governorate, killing six and wounded more than 350. It was the seventh attack involving chlorine gas since January 28, prompting government officials to keep closer watch on people who deal in toxic gas in private or government-run plants, the UN Regional Information Networks (IRIN) reported on March 20.

Furthermore, at a March 20 press conference, U.S. Major General Michael Barbero accused insurgents of employing children in carrying out attacks. Barbero said that the vehicle used in a March 18 car-bomb attack in Al-Amadiyah that killed five and wounded seven was allowed to pass through a checkpoint after soldiers saw two children in the back seat. The driver parked the car near a market and fled, leaving the children still inside. Moments later, the car exploded. Although the U.S. military said the Al-Amadiyah attack is the only known incident in which children were used, Barbero suggested that the attack heralds a new tactic.

If this is indeed a trend among insurgent groups to alter their tactics to adapt to the new security environment, it underscores the difficulties U.S. and Iraqi forces face in trying to establish a more secure Iraq. While the Baghdad security plan has shown promise, it remains to be seen what would happen if there were another high-profile attack, such as the February 2006 Al-Askari shrine bombing, widely seen as the point when the conflict became sectarian in nature.

Muqtada Al-Sadr

Muqtada Al-Sadr

Al-Sadr supporters demonstrating against the U.S. presence in Iraq in October 2006 (epa)

A RADICAL CLERIC. Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr is a key figure in Iraq. He heads the Imam Al-Mahdi Army militia and a political bloc that is prominent in parliament and the government. His ties to Iran have also provoked concerns in some quarters.


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