Security sweep unfolds in Baghdad

U.S., Iraqi troops attempt to clear insurgents from neighborhoods

February 16, 2007|By Borzou Daragahi | Borzou Daragahi,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- It was just after lunch yesterday when the surge arrived at Haidar Karam's doorstep.

About 50 U.S. soldiers appeared and circled his northeast Baghdad neighborhood. A half-dozen Humvees arrived 15 minutes later. Snipers took up positions on rooftops. Troops stopped vehicles from moving.

They were the leading edge of a Baghdad security plan called Operation Law and Order, part of what the Bush administration has dubbed a "surge" in U.S. troops in Iraq. After weeks of delay, the promised crackdown and troop increase were evident yesterday during a tour of neighborhoods throughout the war-wilted capital of 6 million people, where sectarian fighting kills an average of 100 residents a day.

A U.S. officer approached Karam, handing the government clerk a piece of paper with a phone number and an e-mail address to contact if there was any trouble in his Shiite-dominated Shaab neighborhood.

He told Karam through an interpreter that U.S. and Iraqi forces were going to secure the neighborhood. They were going to install a 1-megawatt power generator.

"I told him, `I find that difficult to believe,'" Karam said. "Our government always lies to us."

At that, the U.S. officer laughed, he said. "We will prove it to you!" he said the American told him.

U.S. and Iraqi security forces conducted raids, searched abandoned buildings and set out on patrols through neighborhoods yesterday as part of the security plan, which officially began Tuesday evening.

Despite the crackdown, authorities discovered the bodies of at least 20 men who were shot dead and dumped in west Baghdad. Dozens were killed or found dead around the country.

Under the plan, units of U.S. and Iraqi forces will attempt to clear neighborhoods of unauthorized weapons and insurgents. They will not return to base but remain in place in an attempt to halt the upwardly spiraling sectarian warfare between Shiite Muslim and Sunni Muslim gunmen, draw residents back to their homes and rebuild the economy.

"We are establishing a stronger presence throughout the city," said Maj. Steven F. Lamb, a spokesman for U.S. forces in Baghdad. "We're going to have a 24-hour presence, which is going to stem the sectarian violence. All available troops that we can have on the street are on the streets."

The U.S. forces often found themselves back at the small bases they used after the 2003 invasion. The facilities were abandoned as U.S. commanders under the direction of Gen. George W. Casey decided to lower the American profile in neighborhoods and hand local security off to Iraqi forces.

Since then, Baghdad has become a forbidding maze of concrete blast walls and concertina wire roamed by mysterious gunmen, where terrified residents scurry for their homes before dark.

The southern Dora district was among the first neighborhoods targeted. With Humvees and armored vehicles protected by aircraft, U.S. troops swept into the neighborhood Wednesday, setting off stun grenades before storming houses in search of insurgents.

By yesterday morning, explosions shook the district, and security forces at newly established checkpoints began searching cars.

"Just four days ago, gunmen never stopped attacking checkpoints and firing at the Iraqi army," said journalist Ghesan Jabouri, a Dora resident. "Now that's all over."

Still, two car bombs killed at least four Iraqis and injured 20 in Dora, and by mid-afternoon the district's bullet-scarred main streets testified to the challenges facing U.S. and Iraqi forces. Many shuttered shops were painted with an encircled X, a warning by insurgents not to reopen. Iraqi soldiers at a checkpoint stood guard, waving by the smattering of drivers braving the streets.

In nearby Sadiya, a violent Sunni neighborhood, U.S. soldiers stood near a kitchen of a home and watched their Iraqi counterparts search the modest dwelling for weapons.

"What, grandma?" an Iraqi soldier joked to the family's bent and elderly matriarch, a woman in her 70s. "Don't you have any rocket-propelled grenades or roadside bombs?"

"No, son," she replied, laughing. "What would we do with such cursed things?"

The soldiers seized a handgun but let her family keep an AK-47.

The heavy police and army presence and the publicity ahead of the plan might have scared off many of the gunmen. Few shops were open, and traffic was sparse in the Mansour district of western Baghdad, site of frequent battles over checkpoints between insurgents and security forces.

U.S. and Iraqi officials believe that the initial shock of the plan eventually will wear off and that the insurgents will be back.

"That's a common issue that you have to deal with in any combat environment," Lamb said. "They're going to evaluate what we're doing and adjust to it, just as we have to evaluate what they're doing and adjust to it."

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