Brutal New Tactics In Iraq

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An Iraqi army soldier mans a checkpoint in central Baghdad, June 14, 2007.

Suicide bombers in Iraq have staged a deadly surge of their own, striking three targets on Monday — including the highly fortified Mansour Hotel in central Baghdad. Early reports put the combined death toll at 50, and climbing. But how are militant groups sneaking their bombs and bombers past the giant security dragnet around Baghdad? There are over 70,000 U.S. and Iraqi soldiers and Iraqi policemen spread across the city, conducting house-to-house searches and street patrols, walling off entire neighborhoods and setting up hundreds of checkpoints.

An ongoing TIME investigation has turned up several tactics insurgents use to evade detection and get past the security arrangements. Most of the tactics are designed to exploit the ineptitude of Iraqi security forces — the 30,000 soldiers and 21,000 police who are meant to support U.S. troops. Lacking in training, equipment and motivation, the Iraqis are the soft underbelly of the surge. A U.S. military internal assessment of the surge in late May showed that they are often unable to perform the simplest tasks, like manning checkpoints. And insurgent groups take full advantage, easily slipping men and munitions in and out of neighborhoods guarded by Iraqi soldiers and police. The simplest ruses work best, as the field commander of one insurgent group told me: "They never check cars with families, or children, or old people. If you have a woman passenger, you can drive past 50 checkpoints with a trunk full of C4, and you won't be stopped once."

Even so, some insurgent groups are taking precautions, giving their fighters new ID cards and papers with government markings that look remarkably authentic. Some don't need to: another insurgent commander told me his group has recruited many government officials and even soldiers. "I'm bringing weapons into the city in official cars," he said. In the Abu Ghraib area west of Baghdad, some fighters in the Brigades of the 1920 Revolution say they have been ordered to sign up for the Iraqi Army in order to get official papers that would allow them to move freely in the city.

Perhaps the most telling indication of the ineffectiveness of Iraq checkpoints is that the black market prices of weapons and ammunition have remained unchanged since the start of the surge. A Chinese-made AK-47, the cheapest on the market, goes for $200, the same price as in January; the Russian model is similarly unchanged at $700. A crate of 750 bullets is now cheaper at $325; the January price was $400.

The incompetence of Iraqi forces helps to explain why, after a sharp drop in the early weeks of the surge, the civilian death toll from sectarian violence has begun to climb. Nearly 2,000 Iraqis were killed in May, the highest since the start of the security crackdown. The familiar signs of Shi'ite militia activity have returned: grossly mutilated bodies of Sunnis are turning up in the streets and Sunni residents in mixed neighborhoods are again being forced out of their homes. Sunni suicide bombings have multiplied, too.

At least one Sunni group has adapted its "martyrdom operations" to eliminate the risk to its own fighters. The al-Qaeda-linked Ayesha Brigade plants bombs in cars owned by Shi'ites and, when the unwitting owners drive them into a crowded area, detonate them by remote control. The videotape of one such operation, bearing the date stamp March 26, was showed to TIME by an insurgent who said he had participated in at least six such operations. (We were not allowed to make a copy since the video had not been edited and the faces of several of the Ayesha Brigade fighters were clearly visible.) In the video, a Shi'ite man named Hassan is "kidnapped" by fighters claiming to represent the Mahdi Army, a well-known Shi'ite militia. When he claims to have connections in the militia, they let him go and follow his car at a discreet distance. The man operating the camera intones, "He doesn't know that while he was being interrogated, we put a bomb in the boot."

Hassan's car is waved through two police checkpoints before it arrives at a crowded square named after the 19th century Iraqi poet al-Rusafi. When he stops, the cameraman begins to shout, "God is great! God is great!" A man sitting next to him is shown dialing a cellphone, evidently to set off the bomb. A huge explosion is heard, and the video ends with scenes of people fleeing from the scene. Iraqi authorities have confirmed that two men were killed and seven injured in a March 26 bombing in Rusafi Square, but would not say if the Ayesha Brigade was involved.