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U.S. Troop Surge Targets Volatile Areas of Baghdad

March 5, 2007 at 5:50 PM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: Today, for a second day, U.S. and Iraqi forces patrolled the largely Shiite district of Sadr City in eastern Baghdad, targeting illegal weapons and fighters.

The patrols represent a new phase of security operations, begun about three-and-a-half weeks ago to stabilize Iraq’s capital. Sunday, roughly 1,100 troops began their first major incursion into the area. There have been no reports of resistance thus far from the neighborhood’s 1.5 million residents.

That contrasts with the last major American drive into a Sadr stronghold. In 2004, U.S. troops engaged in fierce battles with fighters loyal to militia leader Muqtada al-Sadr in the southern city of Najaf.

Sadr’s now a key backer of the Shiite prime minister of Iraq, Nouri al-Maliki. And yesterday’s push into the neighborhood bearing his family’s name came only after negotiations between Maliki and Sadr representatives.

American officials and Sadr’s political allies have said Sadr traveled to Iran recently, but won’t confirm it was to escape the crackdown.

The new Baghdad security sweep, dubbed Operation Law and Order, has put thousands of additional U.S. and Iraqi forces on the streets of the capital. They’ve conducted house-to-house searches for weapons and other material, raided insurgent strongholds, and stopped vehicles at checkpoints.

U.S. troops have also established joint security posts in many Baghdad neighborhoods, positioning them closer to the population and to the violence. The president’s top military adviser spoke about the posts last month before a Senate committee.

PETER PACE, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs: What’s planned is for each of the nine districts in Baghdad to have an Iraqi brigade. Co-located with that Iraqi brigade, teamed up with that brigade would be a U.S. battalion.

RAY SUAREZ: By last week, the number-two U.S. commander in Iraq said the operation had already achieved a significant decline in execution-style killings in Baghdad.

LT. GEN. RAY ODIERNO, U.S. Army: We will stay at this until we think the people feel safe in their neighborhoods, and it’s going to take months. Whether it will be the summer or not, I don’t know yet. Again, I’m cautiously optimistic how things are going forward so far.

RAY SUAREZ: But today’s car bomb targeting a Baghdad book market and killing several dozen people was part of an apparent trend in the other direction. Such attacks in the capital have increased by roughly 30 percent since mid-February, according to a report based on Iraqi government figures, and some Iraqis have questioned the security operation’s effectiveness.

HAIDER AL-JABIRI, Sadr Aide (through translator): We are certain that no security plan is useful, and no occupier is useful, and no hegemony is useful. We are seeing car bombs exploding and taking away thousands and thousands of our beloved people’s innocent souls, under a security plan controlled by the occupier.

RAY SUAREZ: But the new push into Sadr City may help address Sunni fears that the Maliki government would shield Shiite militants from prosecution.

Progress of the security crackdown

RAY SUAREZ: For an assessment of the security crackdown, we turn to Rend al-Rahim Francke, a former Iraqi ambassador to the U.S. under the first interim government there. She's now executive director of the Iraq Foundation, which promotes democracy in Iraq.

And George Packer, a staff writer for the New Yorker and author of "The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq." He visited Iraq in January.

And, George Packer, we have a weekend where we saw a large incursion into Sadr City, with Iraqi forces very much in the lead, and one of the most lethal bombings in weeks at the same time. What to make of how the security crackdown is going so far?

GEORGE PACKER, The New Yorker: Well, I think that one thing that we've seen is the Maliki government is willing to show that it is going to be even-handed in allowing Iraqi security forces, as well as Americans, to go into Shia neighborhoods that they haven't gone into in a long time, not to get into pitch battles in the streets, but to hunt down militia leaders and criminal gang leaders who have pretty much had the run of ethnic cleansing in Baghdad over the last year or so.

So it's an important political demonstration that the Maliki government, so far at least, is willing to allow a kind of nonsectarian execution of the security plan.

But the problem is, the Sunni insurgents have not quit. And, in fact, they are fighting in a more intense way than ever. Along with these big car bombings, there was the cold-blooded execution of 14 Iraqi policemen in Diyala province over the weekend, after they were abducted.

And this was shown on Web sites too, I think, to tell people, "We're still here. And, in fact, we are not going away. We're not going to quit fighting." And their provocations run the risk of so trying the patience of their mostly Shia-intended victims that the security plan may not be given a full chance, because the Shia neighborhoods simply aren't going to accept car bombers coming in at will.

Reducing sectarian violence

RAY SUAREZ: Ambassador, taking all that into account, how is the plan, upping the number of soldiers and concentrating on Baghdad, going?

REND RAHIM FRANCKE, Iraq Foundation: Well, the feedback from Baghdad, from different neighborhoods in Baghdad, both Sunni and Shia, is that people are feeling somewhat more secure and more confident, with the increased number of U.S. and Iraqi troops in the neighborhoods. And I've spoken to a number of people who have said, yes, they feel better.

As you mentioned earlier, the numbers for February show a decline in the assassinations and the deaths amongst Iraqis and Baghdad in operations. We don't know if that is a trend or if that's a glitch. It's too soon to tell.

But in terms of the surge, for example, into Sadr City, I think it does make Maliki look good, in the sense that he can show that, as he promised, he is going to target both Sunni and Shia lawlessness. He said lawlessness is going to be addressed regardless of where it comes from. And he is showing, by this surge into Sadr City, that he is not going to shield the Shia, as you mentioned.

But I think to comment a little bit on what George Packer just said, we do have to distinguish between the insurgency activities and those activities of the death squads and the sectarian killing that has gone on in Baghdad. And my impression is that the surge is trying to address the latter rather than the former.

Yes, there is, of course, an increase in troops in Baghdad, whether Iraqi or American troops. It's going to try to quell the violence from wherever it comes.

But it strikes me that the major target of this is to reduce the number of sectarian killings in the capital and reduce the tension, the sectarian tension, and the sectarian blood pressure in the capital, in order to allow the government to go about its other business and to give the people in Baghdad a sense of confidence and safety that they haven't had.

So, yes, the insurgents, of course, will continue. The thing to look out for is, is the sectarian violence being reduced somewhat? And that's going to be the key.

The role of the militias

RAY SUAREZ: George Packer, what do you make of that suggestion, that this is really being done on several tracks, one, the insurgents, the other, the death squads and the militias, and it's really that second group that you have to be looking at in the security plan?

GEORGE PACKER: And let's not forget the political track. There are now reports that Prime Minister Maliki is going to shake up his cabinet and, in particular, get rid of some Sadrist ministers, especially the health minister, which has been an absolutely deplorable ministry.

I agree, except that I would say car bombs in Shia markets are sectarian killings. And those have been very high over the last few weeks. And among especially poor Shia who feel exposed to these, they might begin to blame the American and Iraqi armies for allowing these car bombers into their neighborhoods, which in the past Mahdi army checkpoints might have kept out.

So you can't completely separate the attempt to stop the sort of one-on-one, murderous sectarian killings that have been so terrible in Baghdad and the bigger, more dramatic al-Qaida-style car bombings. The two are related, and they get into a vicious cycle.

And if the car bombings don't stop, the sectarian killing is going to resume, because it was instigated in the first place by the sense among Shia that they needed to protect themselves against suicide bombers coming in and killing dozens and dozens of them.

RAY SUAREZ: George Packer, let's take a look in particular at the incursion by American and Iraqi forces into Sadr City. It started over the weekend, continues today. The Mahdi army seems to have gone to ground, evaporated, stood down; what do you make of that?

GEORGE PACKER: Well, it was happening back in January when I was in Baghdad. There were reports that Muqtada himself and a lot of his key lieutenants had either gone to southern Iraq or gone to Iran, and that some of the lower-level figures in the militia had simply gone home, and were locking up their weapons, and were going to wait this out.

And I think that's a key question: How long can this security plan last? And how long is the Mahdi army willing to allow some of its people to be detained and taken off the street, before either the American part of the security plan runs out of troops, runs out of political will back home, and the Iraqi part of it runs out of political will, as well, if Maliki begins to feel the heat from his Shia base, and the Mahdi army begins to retaliate and to say, "We're not going to allow this to happen with impunity"?

But, so far, they've been quieter than in a long time. One Iraqi said to me it feels like the quiet before the storm, but so far there's been no thunder, no lightning, just quiet.

A political solution

RAY SUAREZ: Well, ambassador, earlier we saw pitched battles in the streets of Sadr City, Americans in armored vehicles fighting street to street. This time, they're knocking on doors. What do you think has happened?

REND RAHIM FRANCKE: The last serious confrontations with Sadr were in 2004. And they happened in Sadr City, and they happened in Najaf.

But from what I understand, some of the leadership of the Mahdi army have, indeed, left Sadr City, left Baghdad altogether, and probably moved either into the marsh areas or into Amara, Kut or Kufa, where they have a stronghold near Najaf.

And it seems to me that the primary figures have actually absented themselves from Sadr City; they have pulled out.

RAY SUAREZ: But to fight another day or to leave the field to the Americans?

REND RAHIM FRANCKE: Oh, no, absolutely, they have absolutely no intention of leaving the field. The success of the push into Sadr City is going to be determined by whether the U.S. and Iraqi troops are willing to follow those people to where they have withdrawn, whether it is in Kufa or Amara or the marshes.

Will they go off to them? Or will the surge simply go into Sadr City, go from house to house, and declare Sadr City cleaned or cleared? The Sadr fighters are not going to disappear.

In the end, the only solution to the Mahdi army is a political solution. If there is an agreement to disband the militias, including the Mahdi army, and for them to literally go home, put down their arms, and accept a political settlement, this is what is going to solve it, not a temporary surge.

RAY SUAREZ: Ambassador Francke, George Packer, thank you both.