Baghdad Journal: Why the U.S. Can't Stop the Killing

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An Iraqi detainee sits blindfolded during "Operation Together Forward," a joint operation of the Iraqi National Guard and the U.S. Army, August 8, 2006

If you want to understand the strange realities of Iraq's escalating civil war, consider the predicament of the 2nd Brigade of the Iraqi Army's 6th Division. The troops live at Old MoD, a fortified base that sits right on Baghdad's sectarian fault line. To the east is Shi'ite-majority Sadr City, the sprawling slum that is the stronghold of the Mahdi Army, the militia blamed for much of the sectarian killings in Baghdad; to the north is Adhamiya, the mostly Sunni neighborhood where insurgents and terrorists are known to frequently hide out. At night soldiers in Old MoD — the base is named after the former offices of the Iraqi ministry of defense — can hear gunfire from both neighborhoods. Also close at hand is powerful proof of the communal carnage: when the wind blows in the wrong direction the soldiers smell the corpses overflowing from a nearby morgue.

Since nonpartisan observers agree that the worst perpetrators of sectarian violence in Baghdad are Shi'ite militias, you'd expect the 600-man Iraqi brigade to be focused mostly on Sadr City, engaging the Mahdi Army on a daily basis. But while the brigade does police Sunni areas — setting up checkpoints, patrolling in vehicles and on foot, launching midnight raids — it is not nearly as aggressive in Sadr City, where an uneasy accommodation has been reached with the Mahdi Army. "There's some sensitivity when going into Sadr City for an offensive operation," says Lieut. Colonel Paul Finken, the top U.S. advisor at Old MoD. "There's an added focus so as not to go in there and screw stuff up."

That may make some sense, but it's hard to conceive how things in Baghdad could get much worse. Though U.S. and Iraqi officials in Baghdad and Washington say that quelling sectarian violence is their highest priority, the continued inability of U.S. or Iraqi forces to do anything to curb the power of armed militias has meant the slaughter has grown beyond anyone's control. The July death toll in the capital exceeded 3,400, making it the bloodiest month since the fall of Saddam Hussein. The escalating bloodshed has prompted the U.S. to send 5,500 more soldiers to the city — only weeks after 7,200 U.S. troops and 42,500 Iraqis launched Operation Forward Together, the latest futile attempt to bring a semblance of order to Baghdad. Among some military officers who deal with Iraq, there is an open debate whether U.S. forces should be asked to intervene to stop the civil war. "Why at this point is this exclusively a U.S. military problem to solve?" asks one. "This has long been a multidimensional fight that we are only using soldiers for. [But] we can't fight our way out of this, even with five times as many soldiers."

If the U.S. is hesitant about taking on the Shi'ite militias responsible for the violence, the Iraqi government has shown even less inclination to do so. Shi'ite militias have powerful backing from political parties that dominate the coalition government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. The Mahdi Army is loyal to the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who controls at least 30 seats in the 275-member parliament. "We must not demonize the Mahdi Army or Muqtada," says a senior Coalition official. "He is a legitimate political player."

The other major Shi'ite militia, known as the Badr Organization, is affiliated to SCIRI, the country's single most powerful political party. The head of the Badr Organization, Hadi al-Amiri, also heads the Iraqi parliament's defense and security committee. He portrays the militias as nothing more than neighborhood-watch groups that provide security to citizens, and says American and Iraqi troops "should concentrate all their energies on eliminating [Sunni] insurgents and terrorists."

That kind of talk enrages Sunnis who face the brunt of the militias' murderous depredations. Adopting the same simplistic approach as their Shi'ite counterparts, Sunni politicians say Baghdad's security problems would disappear if only the U.S. would mount a major offensive operation in Sadr City. "They know the problem, the know the solution," says Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, a Sunni. "So why aren't they doing something?"

Unable to beard the Shi'ite lion in its den, the U.S. and Iraqi commanders have reverted to the tactics they have periodically employed — with little effect — against Sunni insurgents and terrorists in Baghdad over the past three years: cordoning entire neighborhoods, intensive patrolling, house-to-house searches, surprise raids. But at best, these measures have brought only temporary relief. Militias and insurgents know to disappear when the U.S. military arrives. Past experience shows that once the soldiers move on, the violence returns. After three days of extended curfews and intensive patrolling in Amariyah, a mainly Sunni neighborhood that was controlled by jihadi groups, the U.S. last week declared the area safe and ended the cordon-and-search operations. But residents say the jihadis had simply melted away before the operations began, and fully expect them to return.

The responsibility for consolidating the "gains" achieved by military operations falls to the Iraqi police — a force that is not only poorly trained and equipped but is also thoroughly infiltrated by militiamen more loyal to their Shi'ite religious leaders than to the Interior Ministry that pays their salaries. U.S. officials concede that several of the national police brigades that operate in Baghdad are led by officers of criminal or sectarian tendencies.

In the absence of a nonmilitary solution and the political will to take on the militias, the only realistic hope for sustainable peace in Baghdad may be to keep a sizable American presence in the capital indefinitely — but that is the exact opposite of the U.S. goal to reduce its military footprint and allow Iraqi forces to take over. After the failure of the first phase of Operation Forward Together, few civilians in Baghdad have much faith in the competence of the Iraqi forces. Even in volatile neighborhoods like Abu Ghraib, long a battleground between Sunni insurgents and U.S. forces, residents say they want to see more U.S. soldiers and fewer Iraqi troops. "Compared to the Shi'ite militias, the Americans are a more merciful presence," says Abu Abdallah, a field commander in Abu Ghraib for the jihadi group known as the Army of Islam. "If the Americans leave, the life of a Sunni in Baghdad will be worth nothing."

—With reporting by Aparisim Ghosh/Baghdad and Sally B. Donnelly/Washington