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Securing Baghdad

Author: Lionel Beehner
July 18, 2006
This publication is now archived.

Introduction

A month after the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Iraq's most wanted terrorist, and the naming of Iraq's interior and defense ministers, Baghdad remains as insecure as ever. A recent wave of sectarian killings and kidnappings has erupted despite efforts by Iraqi security forces to stabilize the city. News reports describe a city beset daily by bloodshed, as Iraqis of all sects and income brackets are fleeing for safer neighborhoods. Even the highly fortified Green Zone has not been sheltered from the violence. Experts say the instability in Baghdad threatens to undermine efforts by the newly formed Iraqi government to consolidate its monopoly on the use of force and carry out crucial improvements to living standards in the capital.

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What steps are being taken to secure Baghdad?

On June 14, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki launched "Operation Together Forward," a citywide operation of raids and checkpoints, and called for a state of emergency, blanketing the city with 75,000 police officers and coalition forces. "The effort in and around Baghdad is being led by Iraqi security forces," says Andrew F. Krepinevich, executive director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. "We're going to find out how good they are." The U.S. military, led by Lt. General Peter W. Chiarelli, recently established a so-called "Focused Reconstruction" plan to secure Baghdad—sometimes referred to as a "clear, hold, and build" strategy—which entails a highly concentrated number of U.S., Iraqi, and coalition forces clearing urban areas of insurgents and reviving local governance and other basic services. Finally, the Iraqi government stepped up its advertising campaign on television and billboards throughout the city to educate Iraqis on how to avoid terrorist attacks. "For the eyes of Iraq, open your eyes," reads one popular television ad.

Have these steps been successful?

Not yet. "[The security operation] has not produced the results I expected so far," said Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, in a July 11 speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). In fact, since early June, violence in Baghdad has steadily risen. The city's morgue received 1,600 bodies in June alone, according to city's Health Ministry, as reported in the Iraqi newspaper al-Sabah. "The situation has worsened considerably in the last couple of months," writes The Mesopotamian, a Baghdad-based blogger. "I don't know whether people abroad are really aware of the real situation in Baghdad right now. The capital is divided along sectarian lines with parts of it becoming no-go zones especially for Shiites, and these zones are not just in the peasant outskirts of the city but have moved to the heart of middle class areas." Even Mansour, an upscale neighborhood described by the New York Times as "Baghdad's Upper East Side," has drifted toward chaos. "It promises to be a long summer," writes a female Iraqi blogger who goes by Riverbend. "It's a combination of the heat, the flies, the hours upon hours of no electricity and the corpses which keep appearing everywhere."

Who is perpetrating the attacks in Baghdad?

News reports suggest that Sunni and Shiite militias are responsible for the bulk of the violence. In a four-day stretch in early July, more than 140 Iraqis in and around Baghdad were killed in a string of reprisal attacks, including a daytime rampage by a mob of gun-wielding Shiites. Members of the Mahdi Army—a Shiite militia under the sway of young firebrand cleric Moqtada al-Sadr—reportedly set up checkpoints around the city, pulled Sunnis from their homes and cars, and killed them in broad daylight. In response, Sunnis attacked a handful of Shiite mosques with car bombs. On July 15, sixty Sunni insurgents in masks stormed the National Olympic Committee of Iraq and seized thirty hostages, including the committee's president. The number of casualties in Jihad, a largely Sunni neighborhood in western Baghdad, has climbed exponentially according to local hospital stats.

Why has it been so hard to secure Baghdad?

Experts say the current level of Iraqi and coalition troops deployed in Baghdad— roughly 75,000—is not sufficient to secure the densely packed city of six million inhabitants. Expert Kenneth M. Pollack of the Brookings Institution, speaking before the House Subcommittee on National Security, Emerging Threats, and International Relations on July 11, says between 100,000 and 120,000 Iraqi forces would be necessary to secure a city the size of Baghdad. Further, he adds, the plan as currently implemented has a "divided commands structure that does not match Lt. General Chiarelli's vision of a unified military-civilian chain of command, and without the necessary political and economic assistance to make security in the capital sustainable." Others point out that Baghdad remains deeply impoverished in parts while municipal services are failing. Many of the city's inhabitants live in low-rise tenement slums, which have emerged as outposts of anti-U.S. resentment. During the Saddam era, many of these tenement blocs were populated with Baathist sympathizers from parts of the so-called Sunni Triangle. Other parts of the city, most notably Sadr City, remain heavily Shiite, poor, and loyal to sectarian militias such as the Mahdi Army.

What is the role of the Green Zone?

The Green Zone, a heavily fortified four-square-mile area in central Baghdad that once housed Saddam Hussein's ornate palaces and various villas, is now the seat of the new Iraqi government. It is also home to Western-style hotels, a number of international organizations' headquarters, and a just-completed U.S. embassy. Around 5,000 Iraqis reside within its perimeter in addition to a few thousand Western workers. Yet, as William Langewiesche documents in a November 2004 Atlantic Monthly story, "there is so much open space [in the Green Zone] that the two groups can live with very little interaction." The zone is ringed with razor wire and protected by military checkpoints. That, however, has not made it immune to attacks. In early July, suicide bombers detonated themselves just outside the zone's gates, killing sixteen people. A cable leaked recently by the Washington Post reports that Iraqis working in the Green Zone face increasingly tough conditions outside the zone.

What proposals are being considered to secure Baghdad?

One plan gaining attention is to deploy Kurdish forces, most of which are based in northern Iraq, to patrol the city. According to al-Hayat, a London-based Arabic daily, the Kurdish Provincial Authority—which already contributes to Iraq's national army—said it is willing to send troops to Baghdad. Leaders from both Sunni and Shiite camps say they would welcome the additional security help from the Kurds, who are seen as honest brokers—despite being primarily Sunni—and are "preferable to the use of Arab or Muslim troops as proposed," Baghdad Security Chief Mahdi Sabih recently told reporters. However, Kurdish politician Mahmoud Othman recently told the New York Times what was needed in Baghdad was not a military but a political solution, calling into question the new government's ability to assert its will over local tribal and religious groups.

Why is securing Baghdad so important?

Baghdad is important for two reasons, Krepinevich says. Because it's the seat of the Iraqi government, a violence-ridden Baghdad sends a negative message to the rest of Iraq. "If it can't protect itself, it's hard to argue it can protect the people," Krepinevich says. Second, Baghdad is a microcosm of the country at large, with large Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish populations. "Like the old phrase about New York," he says, "if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere. Well, if you can secure Baghdad, you can secure the rest of Iraq." Or as blogger The Mesopotamian puts it: "Whoever wins this battle [for Baghdad] settles this business once and for all."

What progress is being made training Iraqi security forces?

Khalilzad, speaking at CSIS, said Iraq's security forces have grown from 168,000 to over 265,000 since last July. By the end of summer, he predicts, roughly three-quarters of Iraq's army battalions and brigades will be leading counterinsurgency operations, with U.S.-led coalition forces playing mainly a logistical and supporting role. Yet Pollack, speaking before the House subcommittee, says only about one-third of the Iraqi forces can be considered trained enough to play a meaningful role. Further, he argues, "even the 235,000-plus Iraqi security personnel in the field or in the training pipeline are inadequate to the task: Iraq probably requires more than twice that number to address the security problems of a failed state and an insurgency."

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