Commanders Say Push in Baghdad is Short of Goal

New York Times

BAGHDAD, June 3, 2007  — Three months after the start of the Baghdad security plan that has added thousands of American and Iraqi troops to the capital, they control fewer than one-third of the city’s neighborhoods, far short of the initial goal for the operation, according to some commanders and an internal military assessment.

The American assessment, completed in late May, found that American and Iraqi forces were able to “protect the population” and “maintain physical influence over” only 146 of the 457 Baghdad neighborhoods.

In the remaining 311 neighborhoods, troops have either not begun operations aimed at rooting out insurgents or still face “resistance,” according to the one-page assessment, which was provided to The New York Times and summarized reports from brigade and battalion commanders in Baghdad.

The assessment offers the first comprehensive look at the progress of the effort to stabilize Baghdad with the heavy influx of additional troops. The last remaining American units in the troop increase are just now arriving.

Violence has diminished in many areas, but it is especially chronic in mixed Shiite-Sunni neighborhoods in western Baghdad, several senior officers said. Over all, improvements have not yet been as widespread or lasting across Baghdad, they acknowledged.

The operation “is at a difficult point right now, to be sure,” said Brig. Gen. Vincent K. Brooks, the deputy commander of the First Cavalry Division, which has responsibility for Baghdad.

In an interview, he said that while military planners had expected to make greater gains by now, that has not been possible in large part because Iraqi police and army units, which were expected to handle basic security tasks, like manning checkpoints and conducting patrols, have not provided all the forces promised, and in some cases have performed poorly.

That is forcing American commanders to conduct operations to remove insurgents from some areas multiple times. The heavily Shiite security forces have also repeatedly failed to intervene in some areas when fighters, who fled or laid low when the American troops arrived, resumed sectarian killings.

“Until you have the ability to have a presence on the street by people who are seen as honest and who are not letting things come back in,” said General Brooks, referring to the Iraqi police units, “you can’t shift into another area and expect that place to stay the way it was.”

When planners devised the Baghdad security plan late last year, they had assumed most Baghdad neighborhoods would be under control around July, according to a senior American military officer, so the emphasis could shift into restoring services and rebuilding the neighborhoods as the summer progressed.

“We were way too optimistic,” said the officer, adding that September is now the goal for establishing basic security in most neighborhoods, the same month that Bush administration officials have said they plan to review the progress of the plan.

Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the senior American ground commander in Iraq, said in a brief interview that he never believed that a midsummer timetable for establishing security in Baghdad was realistic. “This was always going to be conditions-driven,” he said, noting that he always had expected it would take until fall to establish security across much of the city.

But in order to meet that timetable, he added, the Iraqi Security Forces would have to make strides in coming months at maintaining security. “Ultimately the I.S.F., and specifically the police, are the key to holding an area,” he said. “We have to within the next four months move them more toward holding the areas we have cleared.”

The last of the five combat brigades ordered to Iraq as reinforcements as part of the security plan will increase the number of American troops in the city to around 30,000, up from 21,000 before the operation, an American officer said.

In addition, around 30,000 Iraqi Army and national police forces and another 21,000 policemen have been deployed in Baghdad. Many of the Iraqi units have turned up at less than full strength and other units have been redeployed from the capital, General Brooks said, leaving fewer than expected.

American commanders have also had to send troops outside the capital, to deal with a sharp rise in violence in Diyala Province and to search for American soldiers kidnapped south of the capital.

In some parts of the city, commanders have yet to attempt large-scale clearing operations. For example, American forces have moved into only a small portion of Sadr City, the vast slum on the city’s east side that is a Shiite stronghold.

Sending large number of troops in there could incite heavy violence and opposition from Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki’s largely Shiite government, several officers said.

The problems facing American troops are illustrated in troubled western Baghdad. In the Rashid district there, the First Battalion, Fourth Brigade of the First Infantry Division has been working since March to carry out the security push.

When the battalion, commanded by Lt. Col. Patrick Frank, moved in, it was replacing a lone American Army company of 125 soldiers. Yet even with three times as many soldiers patrolling the area, violence has worsened. Last month, 249 bodies were found in the sector, up from 98 the month Colonel Frank arrived, according to statistics compiled by the battalion.

Lately, his troops have been hit by a wave of roadside bomb attacks that have killed five of them and wounded 13 others. “We have a tough fight ahead of us,” he said.

The district includes Ameel, Baya, Jihad and Furat, mostly mixed Sunni-Shiite neighborhoods abutting the road to the Baghdad airport where his troops have established three patrol bases. Before the new strategy, there were none.

The area, a mixture of poorer urban slums and middle-class dwellings, once home to many retired professionals, has been troubled for years. Violence dipped there and across the city in the first months of the year, but has since worsened.

Militants, many associated with the Mahdi Army of the Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr, have resumed a push to drive Sunnis from their few enclaves, American commanders said. One of the area’s last Sunni mosques was bombed Wednesday.

“This area used to be primarily Sunni, but in the last six months Jaish al-Mahdi has conducted essentially a cleansing campaign,” said Colonel Frank, using the Arabic name for the Mahdi Army.

In addition to carrying out sectarian killings, the Mahdi Army controls two of the area’s three gas stations, which refuse to sell to most Sunnis. Gunmen regularly attacked trash trucks when they entered Sunni areas until the American military began providing security. Sunni homes are also the targets of arson attacks if their occupants fail to heed warnings to leave, he said.

Sunni insurgents have fought back as well, with two large car bomb attacks in largely Shiite sections of Baya and Ameel that killed more than 60 people, officers said.

The sectarian violence was especially disheartening to some American officers because it occurred in May, the same month that they were undertaking the centerpiece of the Baghdad security plan — a neighborhood clearing operation.

The battalion’s troops, augmented by more than 2,000 soldiers in armored Stryker vehicles, went block by block through the neighborhood, arresting suspected insurgents and destroying arms caches.

But since the Stryker unit has moved on to a different area of Baghdad, “there’s been a reinfiltration” by Shiite fighters and intimidation squads, who had left the area when the operation began, said Capt. Tim Wright, the company commander responsible for the neighborhood.

In addition to the dumped bodies being found every day, more Sunni families are departing. Soon, he said, they may all be gone.

Colonel Frank, of Cuba, N.Y., who served a previous Iraq tour in Mosul in 2003 with the 101st Airborne Division, said his forces were having some success in neighboring Ameel at keeping sectarian violence under control. Thirty Sunni families have returned to the neighborhood recently, he said.

But American officers worry that many members of the largely Shiite police force sympathize or collaborate with the Mahdi Army.

The local commander of the Iraqi national police, a force run by the Shiite-run Interior Ministry, has been replaced three times since March.

One of those commanders, Col. Nadir al-Jabouri, a Shiite described by Colonel Frank as the most aggressive and even-handed Iraqi officer he had seen. But he was detained in late March by the Interior Ministry and accused of having ties to insurgents.

“He was not a protector of the people; he was a terrorist,” said Col. Vhafir Kader Jowda, his Shiite replacement.

American patrols have been attacked in a wave of deadly bombings recently, sometimes within sight of police checkpoints, officers said.

Ten soldiers under Colonel Frank’s command have been killed since March. At least eight of the recent attacks in the area have used explosively formed penetrators, or E.F.P.’s, powerful bombs able to pierce armored Humvees.

When Colonel Frank went to the Ameel police station recently accompanied by a reporter and asked for help in capturing a local Shiite sheik believed to be behind the bombings, the police official he was meeting with spoke in a whisper. “They listen to us,” he said, pointing to a ventilation grill on his wall. “I am in danger just by meeting with you.”

A few weeks earlier, angered by the attacks on his soldiers, Colonel Frank ordered a video camera hidden near an abandoned swimming pool along a main road in Ameel, near a police checkpoint, where patrols had been hit repeatedly.

When the video was examined after another attack, it showed two Iraqi policemen talking with companions, who were heard off-camera, apparently laying an explosive device. Minutes after the policemen were seen driving away, the camera showed a powerful bomb detonating as an American Humvee came into view.

The video of the attack, which just missed the vehicle and caused no casualties, was shown to a reporter from The New York Times.

After police commanders were confronted with the video in mid-May, six Iraqi officers were arrested, Colonel Frank said.

But the episode has not been forgotten. At a weekly meeting where military commanders and police chiefs sit around a horseshoe-shaped conference table at one of the American bases, Capt. Adel Fakry, the Ameel police commander, complained that American soldiers on patrol were showing “distrust” toward his officers.

“The reason there is distrust,” Colonel Frank responded, his voice rising, “is because I have a video of six Iraqi officers placing a bomb against my soldiers, and they came from your station.”

There had been “some mistakes,” Captain Fakry responded, looking taken aback by the confrontation. Not all of the six officers were from his station, he added before ending the conversation by flipping open his cellphone and making a call while the meeting continued.

The same distrust has hampered relations throughout Baghdad since the strategy began. In Shula, a neighborhood just east of Kadhimiya, north of Rashid, American troops in March discovered a group of Iraqis in police uniforms setting up an E.F.P. near a bridge. They were using police vehicles to provide cover.

The American soldiers killed two of the bomb planters. They later discovered that one had a badge granting him wide access to the Green Zone, the fortified area in central Baghdad where the American Embassy and most Iraqi government buildings are situated.

“That’s the level of penetration that these guys have,” said Lt. Col. Steven M. Miska, deputy commander of the Second Brigade, First Infantry Division, which is charged with controlling northwestern Baghdad.

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