Friday, August 11, 2006

And so it begins

US, Iraqi forces seal off Baghdad district in crackdown
Thu 10 Aug 2006 10:52 AM ET

By Ross Colvin

BAGHDAD, Aug 10 (Reuters) - U.S. and Iraqi forces sealed off parts of one of Baghdad's most dangerous districts on Thursday, searching thousands of homes in an effort to regain control of the capital's lawless streets.

The sweep in the southern Dora district, involving 5,000 troops and lasting three days, has had one immediate result, U.S. Colonel Michael Beech said -- the murder rate, which peaked at 20 a day after a surge in sectarian violence, is now zero.

"There is no place safer in Baghdad right now," the commander of the U.S. 4th Brigade Combat team told journalists at an Iraqi police compound in Dora.

The operation is unusual because it combines a crackdown on militants and criminals with a hearts and minds-winning regeneration scheme to provide essential services and clean up the rubbish-strewn streets of the predominantly Sunni district.

When U.S. troops break down doors or smash windows to enter homes in search of illegal weapons, explosives and wanted insurgents, they are followed shortly afterwards by local contractors who repair the locks or replace the windows.

U.S. troops have often been accused of alienating Iraqis with heavy-handed tactics, particularly during house searches.

Beech said the aim of the operation, which he expected to last another 24 hours, was to "radically reduce the number of murders, kidnappings and assassinations" in the area.

"Dora has been plagued by a rash of sectarian violence," he said. "We stabilize the area, clear and secure it and then hold it," he said.

A drive through Dora found shops shuttered and the streets largely clear of any traffic apart from U.S. military and Iraqi police vehicles. U.S. Army bulldozers were clearing rubble and palm tree trunks used as street barriers.

Iraqi Police Brigadier General Abd al-Rahman Yusif said thousands of homes had been searched. Fourteen AK-47s, a rocket-propelled grenade launcher and improvised hand grenades had been seized and 36 arrests made.

"We are striking with an iron fist," he told the same news briefing. He hoped the success of the mission would stop the flight of residents from areas where their sect is in the minority and encourage others to return.

Beech said the second phase of the operation would focus on securing the area for the longer term after the troops had left.

Company-sized units of Iraqi and U.S. forces will patrol specific neighborhoods, with police patrols assigned specific beats so they become familiar to residents and win their trust.

If successful, the military could use the operation as a model for similar operations in the rest of Baghdad, which has been racked by sectarian violence that has pushed the country towards all-out civil war.

If the Iraqi politicians don't pull this back, this could well be the beginning of the end for the "insurgency" in Baghdad, which is it's last toehold in Iraq. We've got experienced and lethal troops in there that are already experienced in this sort of thing, and Iraqi forces that are picking up more slack everyday. This could well be the beginning of an unpleasant "October Surprise" for the antiwar Dems. I wonder how long this operation will take.