New York Times
It seems the that Sadr and his militias are just going to wait out the surge. Some renegade militias may perhaps ambush the security precincts that are to be set up in each area. Obviously most of the troops are US rather than Iraqi. I heard one report that Sadr was indeed in Iran but just "visiting" not escaping from the surge. However, he seems to have made no statements opposing the security sweep. Perhaps he hopes that it will clear out some of the SUnni insurgents and also renegeda militias that he cannot control. He will come back after the surge has subsided.
February 14, 2007
Troops Sweep 3 Shiite Areas in Baghdad Push
By RICHARD A. OPPEL Jr. and DAMIEN CAVE
BAGHDAD, Feb. 14 — Thousands of American troops in armored Stryker vehicles swarmed three mostly Shiite neighborhoods of northeastern Baghdad on Wednesday, encountering little resistance during what commanders described as the first major sweep of the new security plan for the capital.
The push into the Shaab, Bayda and Ur neighborhoods, on the northern edge of Sadr City — coming one day after the top Iraqi general asserted broad powers to search, detain and move residents from their homes — was the largest of several operations that signaled an escalation of American and Iraqi efforts to stop Baghdad’s bloody violence. And it was clearly an American-led assault: only 200 Iraqi police officers and soldiers were involved, commanders said, working alongside about 2,500 Americans.
The limited Iraqi participation underscored concerns about Iraqi government’s ability to provide the troops it promised and suggested that American soldiers would bear the security plan’s heaviest burdens despite declarations that it would be Iraqi-led.
Col. Steve Townsend, commander of the Third Stryker Brigade Combat Team, said the operation in northeast Baghdad had been pushed up a day because of a request from Iraq’s Shiite-led government. Prime Minister Nuri Kamal Al-Maliki has endured blistering criticism for what some Iraqis have described as dangerous delays in setting the plan in motion, and on Wednesday he seemed determined to display a show of force, if not of progress.
“We’ve started a new phase today, the phase of building the state on the basis of two ideas,” he said, at a news conference in the southern city of Karbala. “The basis of reconciliation — to include all those who want to support the country — and the basis of striking hard at those who want to rebel.”
Without referring to specific operations, President Bush said Wednesday that the new plan was “beginning to take shape” and that the goal was “relative peace.” During a televised news conference at the White House, he asserted that the violence here would be far worse if he had not decided to add 17,500 American combat troops in and around Baghdad.
But the president warned against high expectations. “I say relative peace, because if it’s like zero car bombings,” he said, “it never will happen that way.”
Wednesday’s effort could be felt across the capital. Armored vehicles set up on the border of Sadr City and Ur. Jets thundered overhead for much of the day and night.
In the southeastern neighborhood of Dora, two airstrikes killed 15 suspected insurgents as they defended a building and tried to set roadside bombs, the American military said in a statement. To the northeast, in the Sunni Arab enclave of Adhamiya, American troops arrested a suspected Sunni insurgent leader and searched house to house for weapons, military officials said.
Traffic was also more snarled than usual throughout Baghdad as Iraqi forces narrowed wide boulevards and bridges into a traffic trickle, searching trunks and climbing aboard trucks to search payloads.
Bombs, mortar rounds and gunfights left at least eight people dead across the city — fewer than most days since the new security plan was announced a month ago.
For some Iraqis in Ur and other neighborhoods searched in recent days, the question was whether such gains could last. The current security plan is the third major attempt to bring peace to Baghdad, and in each case, initial gains were supplanted with a return to chaos.
“If the Americans keep doing it, they can make a difference,” said Ali Muhammad, 37, an ice cream shop owner who lives in Ur. “But they have to stay. Otherwise it will never work.”
Wednesday’s largest operation started at dawn in Shaab, Ur and Bayda with three battalions of American troops from the Third Stryker Brigade Combat Team, part of the Second Infantry Division, and a fourth battalion from second brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division. In all about 2,500 American soldiers were involved, along with 200 members of the Iraqi security forces, Colonel Townsend said.
He said more Iraqis would eventually flow into the area. “You’ve got to remember that our surge plans are ahead of the Iraqis,” he said. “The Iraqis are still getting set.”
In Ur, as the sun rose, American troops clustered on corners in 19-ton armored Stryker vehicles. Soldiers poured out of the vehicles, knocking on doors and searching empty lots and two to three story brick homes. Gunmen from the Mahdi Army — Iraq’s largest Shiite militia, loyal to the radical Shiite cleric Moktada Al-Sadr — were believed to have made the area a base of operations. But residents said most of the fighters left several days ago.
Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell, a spokesman for the American military, said at a briefing that Mr. Sadr had followed his militia leaders to Iran, reiterating claims made Tuesday, which have been disputed by the cleric’s aides.
The general also said military officials were scrutinizing a video from a Shiite militia Web site showing what appeared to be an United States Army sergeant, Ahmed Qusai al-Taie, who was kidnapped by masked gunmen in Baghdad last year.
General Caldwell also said that a Marine helicopter crash last week, which the American military had previously attributed to mechanical failure, had in fact been shot down, probably by “some sophisticated piece of weaponry.” Seven people died when the CH-46 Sea Knight came down west of Baghdad.
In Ur, Mr. Sadr’s whereabouts hardly mattered. Besides a few posters of his bearded visage plastered on walls across the neighborhood, signs of a violent, anti-American presence were few.
At about 7 a.m. local time, one company of troops from the Third Stryker Brigade Combat Team reached a two-story warehouse in eastern Ur, near the border with Sadr City, and found three empty, rusted missile launchers that were more than 10 feet tall. The soldiers determined that they had not been used in a very long time. No missiles were found.
The only sign of the insurgents on Wednesday morning came later, when an explosion blew out a few tires on one squad’s vehicle.
“The information we had was that Moktada al-Sadr told all the JAM folks to lay low and not resist,” said Col. Townsend, using a common acronym for Jaish al-Mahdi, Arabic for the Mahdi Army. “And so far we’re not really seeing much resistance.”
Maj. Jesse Pearson, the operations officer for the First Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment of the Third Stryker Brigade Combat Team, said the Mahdi Army seemed uninterested in fighting. Echoing the view of many Iraqi officials, he said: “They are taking the strategic view, which is smart. They can wait us out.”
Some Iraqis said that Shiite militias had been adequate protectors. They questioned whether the Iraqi forces had the skills or dedication to keep families safe.
The concerns even appeared among guards on the government payroll. Soon after discovering the missile launchers, Major Pearson and his battalion commander, Lt. Col. Avanulas Smiley, met with a handful of Iraqi soldiers with the Facilities Protection Service, who said they were worried about what would happen when the Americans left and Iraqis took over.
“Before, the Mahdi Army would check each vehicle that came in here,” said Askal Farhi, one of the guards. “Now the Iraqi police are not really checking any vehicles, even though it’s better to check each vehicle for good security.”
Colonel Smiley asked the officers for their telephone numbers so they could stay in contact and work together to keep the neighborhood safe. But they refused. “We don’t want to look like we’re involved because we don’t want to be accused of being spies,” said Majid Faras, another guard.
The American officers said they were familiar with the problem; they said Iraqis who worked with them were often threatened.
This was one of the many challenges that the American military faces as it tries to attract the critical mass of support that is necessary for stability and safety.
The goal in Ur and the other areas has been laid out for weeks: flush out the militias, confiscate weapons, then set up small security precincts in the heart of the neighborhood where American soldiers and Iraqi security forces can live and work together.
At least six of these so-called joint security sites have already been established in the mostly Sunni areas of western Baghdad. They are widely considered the most visible amendment to previous security plans because they enmesh American troops with Iraqi forces and residents in ways not seen before in Baghdad.
But for the people of Ur, it was still not clear whether the new neighborhood bases would be enough to distinguish the current plan from past operations that failed to staunch the city’s ruthless violence.
Late Wednesday morning, Colonel Smiley met with a Shiite former Iraqi Army officer who said he was worried about the loyalties of the Iraqi security forces. As an American helicopter gunship thundered overhead, the former military officer said that many of the Iraqi policemen officers were criminals.
“You really don’t know what’s inside them,” he said.
At the border of Shaab and Ur, American troops encountered a warmer reception. And some residents in both areas seemed hopeful. Mustafa Jasim, 27, a Sunni Arab, said that the idea of bases in the neighborhood convinced him that the Americans would not leave immediately.
“With them here, now I can feel safe,” he said. “I’m sure the plan will make things better.”
American officers and soldiers described the Iraqi security forces, or I.S.F., as eager, even brave. But they acknowledged that full competence would be harder for them to achieve.
“The challenge we have is getting the I.S.F. to the point that when we de-surge, we can get the I.S.F. to where they can do the job on their own,” Colonel Smiley said.
He said the plan would take time to show results. General Caldwell, at the briefing, also called for patience, as did President Bush.
It was not clear how long they were willing to wait.
Staff Sgt. Kenley Beazer, 35, said American troops might be simply postponing an inevitable return to violence.
“As far taking over the whole city by themselves, it will never happen,” he said. “They rely too much on U.S. forces. As soon as we pull out, I give it six months, then it goes back to as bad as it was before.”
Reporting was contributed by Qais Mizher, Ali Adeeb, Ahmad Fadam, Khalid Al-Ansary and James Glanz.
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company