And the seriousness of the security situation was further emphasized by the news that the U.S. military was planning to build a security barrier around the Sunni neighborhood of Al-Adhamiyah to protect its residents from reprisal attacks.
Series Of Audacious Attacks
In an indication perhaps that insurgents were adapting to the current security environment due to the Baghdad operation in recent weeks, the Iraqi capital witnessed a series of high-profile attacks.
On April 12, a suicide bomber detonated his explosive vest inside one of the cafeterias of the Iraqi parliament building, killing three, including an Iraqi lawmaker, and injuring 22 others.
The attack was shocking, given that the parliament building is located in the heavily fortified Green Zone and those entering from outside must pass through five security checkpoints. The attack demonstrated that insurgents and terrorists could still strike even in the most heavily guarded section of Baghdad.
Moreover, it revealed the possibility that the attack was carried out with assistance from those inside the parliament. Two weeks before the April 12 bombing, the U.S. military found two suicide vests in the Green Zone, suggesting that the attack may not have been an isolated incident.
One of the most spectacular attacks in Baghdad occurred on April 18, when a series of five bombings killed nearly 200 people and wounded more than 250 people. The deadliest of them took place in the predominantly Shi'ite neighborhood of Al-Sadriyah in central Baghdad, where a car bomb exploded near a marketplace, killing 140 people and wounding 159.
Local officials blamed Sunni insurgents for the attacks, but the sheer scale and coordination behind the bombings underscored that despite the ongoing security operation, insurgents could still cause mayhem.
In addition, the massive attack on the Shi'ite neighborhood of Al-Sadriyah has increased the pressure on U.S. and Iraqi forces to protect Shi'ite districts, which prior to the new security operation were primarily the responsibility of the Shi'ite militias, most notably Muqtada al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army.
However, since al-Sadr's militia has taken an increasingly lower profile and has shown restraint in not being provoked into confrontation with Sunni insurgents, the onus rests on the U.S. and Iraqi forces to provide protection. Continuing attacks similar to the Al-Sadriyah market bombing may force residents into the streets to demand the protection of the militia.
Blowback From The Surge
On April 23, a suicide truck bombing on a U.S. military patrol base near the town of Ba'qubah in the restive Diyala Governorate killed nine U.S. soldiers and wounded more than 20. Media described the attack as the deadliest since December 2005, and the Al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State in Iraq later issued a statement claiming responsibility for the bombing.
The attack underscored the increasing volatility of the Diyala Governorate. The U.S. military describes Diyala as the third-most-dangerous governorate in Iraq after Al-Anbar and Baghdad, and 56 U.S. soldiers have been killed there since November.
There are suggestions that Diyala is starting to turn into a major front, after "The Washington Post" reported on April 21 that the U.S. military is sending an additional 2,000 soldiers into the governorate.
The increase in violence in the governorate may be partly due to Al-Qaeda-linked elements being pushed out of the Baghdad by the ongoing security operation. As Baghdad is blanketed by thousands of U.S. and Iraqi troops, Al-Qaeda fighters are forced to seek other places to carry out their operations.
The attack near Ba'qubah is particularly striking, because it is relatively rare that a U.S. military instillation, albeit a smaller outpost, has come under a full frontal assault. The attack itself could be viewed as a direct response by Al-Qaeda to the Baghdad security operation. Unable to penetrate the heavily fortified U.S. military bases in Baghdad and other major cities, the group has much better chances of success when it attacks more vulnerable smaller outposts.
Barrier Causes Uproar
The increasing violence and fears of Shi'ite reprisal attacks against Sunni Arabs prompted the U.S. military to begin erecting a wire-and-concrete barrier around the Sunni neighborhood of Al-Adhamiyah on April 10. After the news of the barrier became known, Sunni politicians and local Sunni leaders condemned the plan, accusing the U.S. and Iraqi governments of isolating community. The outcry and subsequent street demonstrations prompted Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to call for construction to be halted.
Many rejected the U.S. contention that the so-called "gated community" would increase security for the neighborhood by preventing Shi'ite death squads from attacking its residents. Conversely, residents likened the plan to transforming Al-Adhamiyah into a huge prison and accused the U.S. and Iraqi governments of using collective punishment.
Indeed, some Sunni leaders cited to the belief that separating the Sunni neighborhood from the surrounding Shi'ite districts would accentuate the sectarian divisions between Shi'a and Sunni that may ultimately lead to increased animosity. The Sunni-led Iraqi Islamic Party issued a statement on April 21 warning that the barrier would "inflict social and economic damage and it will lead to more sectarian tension."
There was also the inevitable comparison by some in the Arab media of the Al-Adhamiyah barrier to the Israeli separation barrier. An April 23 editorial in the pan-Arab daily "Al-Quds al-Arabi" described the barrier as an act of desperation by the United States in its attempts to gain control of the security situation.
"It seems that the U.S. administration has exhausted all the solutions and ideas in its possession to control the situation in Iraq. So it has resorted to its Israeli ally to ask for help, and the answer came in the form of a plan to build walls to split Baghdad's quarters and entrench sectarian separation," the editorial said.
Regardless of whether the comparison is justified or not, the mere notion that the United States is employing "Israeli" tactics in Iraq does not bode well for U.S. attempts to win the "hearts and minds" of the Iraqi people.
Signs Of Failure?
It would be presumptuous to assume that the U.S. surge policy and the Baghdad security plan is failing. U.S. military officials have stressed that maximum troop levels will not be reached until mid-summer, and only then will it be known if the new policy is achieving its aims.
U.S. military officials have claimed that sectarian violence has been significantly curtailed since the Baghdad security operation began. Indeed, the essential "disappearance" of al-Sadr's militia, which the United States and some Iraqi officials blame for many of the attacks against Sunnis, has undoubtedly reduced the overall level of sectarian violence in Baghdad. Furthermore, the militia's decision to lay low is a direct result of the security plan.
However, the recent spike in car bombings and high-profile attacks such as the Al-Sadriyah market bombing may be an indication that insurgents have altered their tactics to counter the Baghdad offensive. Major General Michael Barbero, the Joint Staff's deputy director for regional operations, said at an April 19 press conference that he expects more high-profile bomb attacks by Sunni extremists.
"It's, you know, action on our part, and now we're seeing the reaction on their part," Barbero said. "And it'll be like that until we can defeat these forces."
In addition, the plan to construct the Al-Adhamiyah security barrier has struck a nerve among the populace. While the policy is based on benign U.S. intentions, the mere idea of sequestering an entire neighborhood in order to protect it emphasizes the seriousness of the security situation.
The majority of Iraqi leaders, like Mahmud Uthman, a member of the Kurdistan Alliance, believes the barrier represents a complete and utter failure of the U.S. military to achieve its security objectives. However, what may be more damaging is the highly symbolic idea the barrier conveys, in that after four years of bloodshed, the differences among Iraq's factions are so great that perhaps they cannot be overcome.
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.