Impact of 'Surge' Debated in Baghdad

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As Army Gen. David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker prepare to brief Congress on progress in Iraq, including the effects of an increase in U.S. troops in Baghdad. What do residents of the Iraqi capital think of the so-called surge?


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good Morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

If you follow the news this week, you'll have little choice but to hear General David Petraeus' assessment of Iraq. Along with U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker, he's giving a much-anticipated report on the war. They will focus in large measure on the effects of an increase in U.S. troops in places like Baghdad.

So we begin this morning by hearing what some Baghdad residents think. Here's NPR's Tom Bullock.

TOM BULLOCK: In their testimony on Capitol Hill today, Ambassador Crocker and General Petraeus are expected to stress security in the Iraqi capital has improved. It's a view not shared by 37-year-old Mohammed Hassan(ph).

Mr. MOHAMMED HASSAN (Resident, Baghdad): (Through translator) Security situation is not good. We are in God's hands. Whenever you are in the street, you're at risk. And we don't know if you'll get killed by a car bomb or by gunshots while standing here.

BULLOCK: Hassan is a taxi driver. Traveling in his rusted white and orange car, he sees more of Baghdad than most. And what he sees is a city divided by sectarian lines where some neighborhoods, especially the few mixed or Sunni areas that remain in Baghdad, are still not safe to enter.

Mr. HASSAN: (Through translator) When passengers ask to go those areas, I don't even bargain with them because whenever they mention Karkh, or an area in Karkh, the conversation is over.

BULLOCK: Karkh is western Baghdad, and it's home to all but one of the last Sunni enclaves in the city. When tens of thousands of additional U.S. and Iraqi troops started moving into Baghdad last February, the city had already become predominantly Shiite. Countless Sunni families have been pushed out of their homes by Shiite militias and death squads. Shiite families moved in to take over those neighborhoods, seeking refuge from Sunni counterattacks.

The cycle was reversed in the few areas Sunnis continue to control. Iraqis have a slang term for this sectarian cleansing of neighborhoods - sufat(ph), simplification.

By the time all the U.S. reinforcements were in place some two months ago, simplification was largely complete.

To save some of the Sunni bastions which remained, U.S. troops resorted to walling them in with 12-foot-high concrete slabs and checkpoints to stop Shiite militias from entering. Still, that's not to say the surge hasn't had an impact.

General QASIM ATA (Iraqi Army): (Arabic Spoken)

BULLOCK: Iraqi General Qasim Ata gives a weekly press conference on Baghdad's security, where he stresses the Iraqi capital has become a safer place.

General ATA: (Through translator) We have statistics that show sectarian killing operations have halted completely and displacement operations have halted as well. The number of car bombs have decreased in Baghdad. And there are also fewer IEDs.

BULLOCK: The U.S. military has different statistics. It reports over 40 car bombs in Baghdad alone last January; 35 were recorded in July and just 15 in August. The number of roadside bombs has actually increased, reaching a record high in June. Mortar and rocket attacks are also higher since the surge began.

U.S. military data shows the number of Iraqi civilians killed in sectarian or insurgent attacks in Baghdad has declined. But that compares with last year, when Sunni extremists destroyed a Shiite shrine, sparking civil war. 2006 was the most violent year in Iraq since the invasion.

And even with the surge troops firmly in place around Baghdad, sectarian militias and death squads continue to operate throughout the city.

Unidentified Man (Iraqi Official): (Arabic spoken)

BULLOCK: An Iraqi official describes the bodies that still fill Baghdad's main morgue. The vast majority of corpses show clear signs of torture and execution. The official asked not to be identified since the Iraqi government no longer releases these numbers. In the words of one senior official, it would create a panic. One of those numbers is 690, the average number of Iraqis killed in Baghdad each month in sectarian fighting since February.

The overall success of the troop surge in Baghdad will be measured not on the city streets but in the Iraqi parliament. The deployment of the additional troops, it was hoped, would bring stability to the capital and give Iraqi politicians time to resolve their differences, something that has yet to happen.

Last Friday, General David Petraeus sent a letter to U.S. troops serving in Iraq. He wrote the lack of political reconciliation meant things had quote, "not worked out as we had hoped."

Tom Bullock, NPR News, Baghdad.

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