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The Battle in Baghdad

Prepared by: Lionel Beehner
July 19, 2006

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While the world's attention shifts toward the conflict between Hezbollah and Israel, Baghdad, as one popular Iraqi blogger puts it, is burning. Outside the bunker-like Green Zone, the Iraqi capital remains a hotbed of sectarian mayhem. A recent wave of tit-for-tat violence between Sunnis and Shiites has left hundreds dead (LAT). Infrastructure is crumbling and municipal services continue to perform below prewar levels. Foreign journalists rarely roam the streets, for fear of kidnappings or worse. According to a new UN report, civilian deaths have climbed to over 100 per day, and "the overwhelming majority of casualties were reported in Baghdad." This new Backgrounder assesses efforts to stabilize the Iraqi capital.

A much-touted security clampdown in the capital, which coincided with the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, "has not produced the results I expected so far," admitted U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad in a recent speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Part of the problem, argues Kenneth M. Pollack of the Brookings Institution, is the Iraqi government is trying to secure Baghdad with half the number of troops necessary to bring order to a city of six million inhabitants.

Khalilzad has outlined a strategy of "focused stabilization operations" meant to restore order to Iraq's urban areas and root out sectarian militias while building municipal institutions, improving governance, and jump-starting the local economy. Much of that approach was spelled out by Andrew Krepinevich—who famously called it an "oil-spot strategy"—last fall in Foreign Affairs. In this recent podcast, Krepinevich assesses the implementation of his strategy one year later and finds it working but requiring more time.

Some of the blame for the recent bloodshed in Baghdad has been placed on Moqtada al-Sadr, a radical Shiite cleric whose militia, the Mahdi Army, has carried out reprisal killings against Sunnis and lures many of its recruits from Sadr City, a Baghdad slum. Yet the so-called Sadrists, despite their spoiler status, "cannot be reduced to an unruly mob, fired up by a populist leader," says Peter Harling, an International Crisis Group senior analyst. "It is a phenomenon with deep roots in contemporary Iraq and expressing a large number of justified grievances." Opposing them is a collection of insurgent fighters and suicide bombers who remain capable of devastating attacks (AP).

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