Added troops yield few results yet in Baghdad

Gates hopes to speed the influx of forces, but a senior official says that may be impossible. Iraqis are growing impatient.

By Louise Roug

Los Angeles Times,P> February 10, 2007

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

Fewer than 20% of the additional Iraqi and American troops have arrived so far. And the roughly 5,000 that have arrived have yet to make a visible impact in this sprawling city of 6 million people, where thousands of paramilitary gunmen patrol the streets.

U.S. officials are trying to manage expectations both domestically and in Iraq, continually asserting that the new forces will slowly take up positions in the capital 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 first nine days of the month.

U.S. 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 the capital are due to arrive one per month, with the last coming in May.

So far, 3,000 U.S. 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 movement of U.S. forces into Baghdad would require a cut in training time, he said — a move resisted by Army officials.

In a handful of mostly Sunni Muslim neighborhoods, residents have noticed more American and Iraqi 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 manning checkpoints do not search the cars.

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

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."

Samarie was skeptical of the Baghdad security plan, which he thought would target only Sunnis. One neighborhood close to his house, Adil, was recently raided by American and Iraqi troops, he said, but Hurriya, a troubled Shiite Muslim 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 advisor to the Iraqi Defense Ministry 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 Sadr for its majority in parliament, making any move against Shiite areas politically problematic.

A deadly maze

Army Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, the top U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, told reporters at a Baghdad news conference this 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, which is Sadr's base.

Baghdad is already a deadly maze of checkpoints and concrete, manned by both 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 American troops, 17,500 Iraqi army soldiers and about 25,000 Iraqi police officers.

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

The 3,000 additional U.S. troops are among 21,500 that President Bush has pledged for Iraq, of whom 17,500 are to come to Baghdad. The Iraqi government is to commit between 8,000 and 10,000 additional troops to the capital, including the 2,000 who have already arrived.

But because Iraqi security forces suffer from widespread absenteeism, the total number may be much lower. U.S. officials have estimated that Iraqi brigades are deploying at about 60% of their full strength.

According to the plan, mixed units of U.S. and Iraqi forces will be deployed throughout nine Baghdad districts. So far, 10 so-called Joint Security Stations have been established to house those units. There will be about three times as many once the troops are fully in place, which would be May at the earliest.

"We're just in the opening days," Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute said in a Pentagon briefing Friday. "We should not expect quick, easy or dramatic results."

No 'magic bullet' seen

U.S. Embassy spokesman Lou Fintor also counseled patience Friday.

"It's really important to caution people that it's going to take time," Fintor said during a call with reporters in Baghdad. "We're months away from seeing any concrete results. Right now we have to stress there's not going to be any magic bullet for solving Iraq's problems."

Caldwell acknowledged "some confusion" about the timing of the plan. "There is not a per se start date," he said. "You could say that the plan is ongoing. We're kind of rolling into this plan."

But as that happens, Iraqis have grown weary.

In Jamiya, formerly an upscale neighborhood bustling with cafes and dozens of shops, most places are shuttered after a series of bombings.

"The same Iraqi army checkpoints are on the main street and they don't do much," said Nawfal Sabbar, 29. "U.S. Humvees pass by on the same street but that's all they do — pass by."

He is one of the last young men in his area. Most others have left the country. Sabbar and his family are planning to leave for Qatar in a week but are having a hard time finding anyone to look after their house, even for money. He doesn't think the much-vaunted security plan will bring any change.

"Too many people have been killed, and many more people will want revenge for all these killings," he said. "Revenge is in the air. It will last a very long time."

Times staff writers Julian E. Barnes in Washington and Said Rifai, Saif Rasheed and Zeena Kareem in Baghdad contributed to this report.