Trenches planned to circle Baghdad

Government intends perimeter ditches, network of checkpoints to trap insurgents

September 16, 2006|By Liz Sly | Liz Sly,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Attempting to curb the escalating bloodshed in the capital, the Iraqi government is planning to dig a series of trenches and set up dozens of traffic checkpoints to control movement into and out of the city of 7 million people, the Interior Ministry said yesterday.

The defensive plan would be a huge and difficult undertaking. Baghdad's circumference runs to roughly 100 miles, most reconstruction projects are languishing unfinished or not begun because of security concerns, and the government is still struggling to assert its authority in the capital.

Interior Ministry spokesman Gen. Abdul Karim al-Kinani said digging a trench is part of the government's plan to pacify Baghdad. It will be deep and wide enough to prevent cars from crossing, forcing all vehicles to use the 28 access roads leading into the capital, he said.

"This trench is going to have 28 entrances and is going to be under our forces' control in order to limit the terrorists' access to Baghdad," he said.

American military officials said they were familiar with the plan, which has been in the works for weeks. Studies are still being conducted to determine how traffic patterns will be affected. If the outer perimeter proves effective, perhaps some checkpoints now being operated inside the city could be taken down, easing the everyday traffic congestion in Baghdad, officials said.

In Washington, President Bush also mentioned a new plan to safeguard Baghdad - but he spoke of using an earthen mound rather than a ditch. "They're building a berm around the city to make it harder for people to come in with explosive devices, for example," he said at a news conference.

Over the summer, American commanders made Baghdad the focus of military efforts in Iraq because the sectarian conflict raging in the capital threatens to plunge Iraq into all-out civil war.

A security plan promoted in June by U.S. officials and Prime Minister Nouri Kamal al-Maliki involved setting up traffic checkpoints throughout Baghdad, but it did little to dampen sectarian violence, which reached a peak in July. Last month, the Americans and Iraqi government began a new tactic, flooding troubled neighborhoods with thousands of troops and doing searches block by block, then leaving battalions behind to try to win the trust of residents.

That sweep began in southern and western Baghdad and is now moving into eastern neighborhoods controlled by the Mahdi Army, a powerful militia that answers to the firebrand Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

The wide cordon to be erected around the city is critical to the new security plan and will be completed within weeks, said Brig. Gen. Abdul Karim Khalaf of the Interior Ministry. He said it was inspired by the Battle of Khandaq - Arabic for Battle of the Trench - in 627, during which the Prophet Muhammad protected the city of Medina from an army by digging trenches.

Vehicle bombs have killed at least 960 Iraqis and wounded 2,763 in Baghdad this year, according to an Associated Press count. That's just over a fifth of the city's deaths from war-related violence and nearly a half of its wounded. Most of the car bombs are thought to be assembled in areas just south of Baghdad, the so-called Triangle of Death.

It is unclear, however, whether the barrier would help to significantly bring down the levels of violence in Baghdad. On a day when 51 bound and tortured bodies were found dumped on the city's streets, bringing to about 130 the number found in the past three days, Sunni leaders accused Shiite militias based inside the capital of carrying out the killings.

As in previous cases, most of the bodies were found bound, tortured and shot in the head, pointing to activity by the mysterious death squads that roam Baghdad neighborhoods and that Sunni leaders say have ties to the Shiite-dominated Interior Ministry.

Adnan Dulaimi, head of the National Concord Front, the largest Sunni bloc in Parliament, called the surge in the body count over the past few days a catastrophe and said the government is turning a blind eye to the killings.

"This is being done by the militias who are circling Baghdad's streets while the U.S. and Iraqi forces are doing nothing to stop them," he said. He said he believes that most of the bodies are of Sunnis abducted over the past two months and that the militias have now decided to kill them and throw them on the streets.

Most of the bombings in Baghdad are carried out by the Sunni-dominated insurgency, and al-Kinani said he is certain the proposed barrier will help reduce attacks because most insurgents are based outside the city.

"Of course, it is going to be 100 percent successful because cars will have no choice other than to go through these 28 entrances, and they will be searched and caught," he said.

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