The Corner

Securing baghdad

A good New York Times piece today on the latest Baghdad operation. The good news is that our troops make a difference, and can succeed in securing neighborhoods:

Three weeks after American and Iraqi troops began searching, fortifying and patrolling Dora, one of Baghdad’s bloodiest neighborhoods, the odor of death on the streets has eased. After 126 bodies surfaced in Dora in July, only 18 turned up in August, according to United States military figures. Killings, most often Sunni against Shiite or vice versa in this mixed neighborhood, dropped as well: 14 were reported last month, down from 73 in July.

The bad news is that we probably don’t have enough troops to make the progress stick in these neighborhoods:

The local progress is coming as death tolls across the country have been soaring, up more than 50 percent in recent months, according to the latest Pentagon assessment. And in Baghdad as a whole, the toll has been high, with the city’s morgue reporting more than 334 people killed or found dead from Aug. 24 to the end of the month.

Most of those deaths occurred in areas without a reinforced military presence. Yet the challenge for American and Iraqi officials lies in spreading security to additional trouble spots without letting Dora slide back into lawlessness. American generals admit that lasting progress will be hard to achieve.

“The difficult part is going to be holding these areas with Iraqi security forces,” the top United States commander, Gen. George W. Casey Jr., told reporters on Wednesday. “And building the relationships between the Iraqi people in the neighborhood and their security forces so they can get on with their economic development.”

American forces have frequently focused on violent areas of Iraq and then moved on — in part because they lacked enough troops to hold the territory — only to return when chaos ensued. In Tal Afar for example, a dusty agrarian city northwest of Baghdad, American troops were forced to reassert control in 2005 after a large military offensive a year earlier failed to yield a lasting peace.

In Dora, local leaders worry that violent gangs are just lying low, scouting for ways to circumvent the additional safeguards while attacking other neighborhoods or waiting for the Americans to leave.

One argument against having more troops in Iraq is that it will antagnize Iraqis. But the dynamic seems to be the opposite–many people welcome our presence because they know it will mean relative safety. The Times quotes a Sunni sheik in Dora:

Mr. Jabouri emphasized that the American presence had made Dora safer. Like others in the area, he raved about being able to sleep again on his roof, away from the sweltering indoor heat. He said some of the families who had fled the violence seemed to be returning, and that the Iraqis and Americans who searched his home were respectful and seemed sincerely interested in improving the neighborhood.

In theory, Iraqi should hold the areas after we secure them, but they are probably not up to the job yet:

Iraqi officials enlisted a new national police brigade several months ago to manage the area after officers were accused of taking part in kidnappings and killings. But many of the new recruits have received little or no training. And with abandoned homes being filled by both legitimate returnees and squatters, differentiating friend from foe has become the challenge.

It all suggests that more American troops could make a real difference

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