Iraqis impatient for promised forces

More than 1,000 Iraqis, 33 U.S. troops have been killed in 8 days

February 10, 2007|By Louise Roug | Louise Roug,Los Angeles Times

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- A month after the Bush administration announced a "surge" in troops for Baghdad, Iraqis are still waiting for something to change.

Barely 20 percent of the additional Iraqi and U.S. troops have arrived. And the roughly 5,000 troops that have arrived have yet to make a visible impact in this city of 6 million people, where thousands of gunmen already patrol the streets.

U.S. officials are trying to manage expectations both domestically and in Iraq, continually reasserting that troops will slowly take up their positions in the city over the coming months.

But after one of the bloodiest weeks since the U.S.-led invasion of 2003, Iraqis are increasingly impatient. A series of high-profile attacks on both civilians and security forces killed more than 1,000 Iraqis and at least 33 U.S. troops in the past eight days.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has said he is investigating whether he can speed the pace of the troop buildup. But a senior Pentagon official said this week that it was unlikely that U.S. troops could be sent to Baghdad any faster than planned. The five brigades going to Baghdad are due to arrive one per month, with the final brigade arriving in May.

So far, 3,000 American troops and about 2,000 Iraqi counterparts have arrived here, according to U.S. officials. "I will be surprised if we can generate forces faster," said the senior official. Speeding the arrival of U.S. forces would require a cut in training time, he said - a move resisted by Army officials.

In a handful of mostly Sunni neighborhoods, residents have noticed more patrols. But many Iraqis interviewed said they saw no more security forces on the street than usual.

"The situation is the same or worse," said Hameed Abdullah, a 43-year-old from a southern Baghdad neighborhood. Abdullah heard about the security plan on TV but said he had seen little evidence of it in his area. Most shops are still closed, and security forces at existing checkpoints do not search the cars.

Last week, Abdullah said, his neighbor of 10 years was murdered in a drive-by shooting: "Every day someone I know is killed."

Ahmed Samarie, a 26-year-old engineer who lives in Khadra, a predominantly Sunni neighborhood on the west side, offered an equally dark outlook. Militias and insurgents threaten residents in his neighborhood but face few consequences, he said.

"The Americans pass through the main street all the time, but they never actually patrol or ask what people want done here," he said. "They couldn't care less."

He was skeptical of the Baghdad security plan, which he thought would target only Sunnis. One neighborhood close to his house, Adel, was recently raided by American and Iraqi troops, he said, but Hurriya, a troubled Shiite neighborhood nearby, was not.

"I will believe this security plan is for real if they start going into Shiite areas and purging them of gunmen," he said. "Otherwise, it's just another scam."

One American adviser to the Iraqi Ministry of Defense said that, so far, additional troops have flowed into the least politically sensitive parts of the capital, which are typically Sunni, saving the more difficult Shiite neighborhoods for later. The U.S.-backed Iraqi government is dominated by Shiites and depends on radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr for its majority in parliament, making any move against Shiite areas politically problematic.

Gen. William B. Caldwell, the top U.S. military spokesman, told reporters at a Baghdad news conference earlier in the week that the security plan "is not going to target any particular sector. It is going to be equitably enforced across the board, for all Iraqis." He specifically said that U.S. and Iraqi forces would have a presence in Sadr City, the huge Shiite neighborhood in northeastern Baghdad that is al-Sadr's base.

Baghdad is already a deadly maze of checkpoints and concrete, manned by legitimate security forces and gunmen posing as such. Moving through the city is difficult and dangerous. Many Iraqis are prisoners in their neighborhoods, if not their homes.

Before the troop buildup began, there were about 67,000 legitimate government security forces in the city - about 24,500 U.S. troops, 17,500 Iraqi army soldiers and about 25,000 Iraqi police.

In addition to those official forces, the city is home to an unknown number of private security contractors and a vast array of sectarian militias.

Bush has pledged to send 21,500 additional U.S. troops to Iraq, of whom 17,500 would go to Baghdad. The Iraqi government is supposed to commit 8,000 to 10,000 additional troops.

Louise Roug writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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