Global Policy Forum

Across Baghdad, Security Is Only an Ideal


By John F. Burns

New York Times
January 27, 2005

When American troops entered Baghdad and overthrew the government of Saddam Hussein 21 months ago, Raad al-Naqib felt free at last. But Dr. Naqib, a 46-year-old Sunni dentist who opposed Mr. Hussein, will not vote Sunday when Iraqis will have their first opportunity in a generation to participate in an election with no predetermined outcome. It is, he said, far too dangerous when insurgent groups have warned that they will kill anybody who approaches a polling station.

Starkly put, Baghdad is not under control, either by the Iraqi interim government or the American military. On the bright spring day in April 2003 when marines helped topple Mr. Hussein's statue in Firdos Square, Baghdad, more than any other place in Iraq, was the place American commanders hoped to make a showcase for the benefits the invasion would bring. Instead, daily life here has become a deadly lottery, a place so fraught with danger that one senior American military officer acknowledged at a briefing last month that nowhere in the area assigned to his troops could be considered safe.

"I would definitely say it's enemy territory," said Col. Stephen R. Lanza, the commander of the Fifth Brigade Combat Team, a unit of the First Cavalry Division that is responsible for patrolling a wide area of southern Baghdad with a population of 1.3 million people. In the week that ended Sunday, according to figures kept by Western security companies with access to data compiled by the American command, Baghdad was hit by 7 suicide car bombings, 37 roadside bombs and 52 insurgent attacks involving automatic rifles or rocket-propelled grenades. The suicide bombs alone killed at least 60 people and injured 150 others.

Although the American military command has cited surveys purportedly showing 80 percent of Baghdad's residents are eager to vote, many people interviewed by reporters are like Dr. Naqib who say they will stay away. "Every day, when you leave your home, you don't know what will happen - bombs, bullets, kidnapping," Dr. Naqib said as he braced himself against the near-freezing cold in the garden of the private sports club where he had taken his wife and three children for lunch, their first family outing in months. "You ask me about hope - there is no hope. On ordinary days, I cannot even allow my children to play in the garden. To them, a garden is something they only see through windows."

In one Baghdad office, only one of 20 people who were asked said he intended to vote; the others, all citing the fear of being attacked by insurgents, either as they walk to the polls - all civilian vehicle traffic has been banned on election day - or after they return home. American commanders have included Baghdad among four Iraqi provinces where they say security issues pose a major threat to the voter turnout. The other 14 provinces, all with heavy Sunni Muslim populations, are Anbar, which includes the cities of Ramadi and Falluja; Salahadin, with the troubled cities Samarra and Bakuba; and Nineveh, whose capital is Mosul.

But for the elections' credibility, Baghdad may matter most, because it is the nation's capital, and because, with its intermingled population of Sunnis, Shiites, Christians and other groups, it is Iraq's most cosmopolitan city and thus, American officials believe, the most promising place for the civic norms represented by the election to take root. If any one area demonstrates just how out of control parts of Baghdad are, it is along Haifa Street, two miles of tree-lined boulevard that run down the west bank of the Tigris River right to the Assassin's Gate, the northern entry to the vast command center for the American and Iraqi officials who now, together, effectively govern Iraq. Any journey on Haifa Street - as central to Baghdad as Fifth Avenue is to Manhattan - is fraught with the risk of ambush by insurgent groups from the dun-colored office and apartment buildings that flank it. It was on Haifa Street that masked insurgents with drawn pistols ambushed three Iraqi election workers last month, forcing them from their vehicle, making them kneel in the road and shooting them in the head. Dozens of other attacks have made the street synonymous among the people of Baghdad with imminent death.

Every American attempt to root out the insurgents has failed, and their dominion is written loudly in graffiti on freshly painted, and repainted, walls. "Long live the resistance!" they say. "There is no God but Allah and his Prophet!"; "Death to the Americans and their Iraqi lackeys!" American military units travel in heavily armed convoys, gunners in helmets and goggles swiveling 50-caliber machine guns on expressways and along inner-city shopping streets to ward off attacks, and not infrequently opening fire, with civilian casualties.

Along with insurgent attacks, the city has seen a surge of crime, including murders and kidnappings for ransom, that has undermined support for the Americans and all they represent - the elections included - as much as the war. With hundreds of Baghdad police officers killed in insurgent attacks and others spending much of their time hunkered down at police stations hidden behind high concrete blast walls and watchtowers, police investigations have virtually ceased.

Hospital morgues are filled with unidentified bodies and body parts, many of them found floating in canals or decomposing on stretches of wasteland. Hardly anybody in Baghdad does not have a horror story to tell about children taken for ransom and later murdered, their bodies sometimes dumped at their homes. Equally rife are tales of family members and friends murdered in disputes over property, illicit affairs, or in revenge for state-sponsored killings carried out under Mr. Hussein. American commanders say the insurgents and criminal gangs are in league, criminals benefiting from the chaos caused by the insurgents, insurgents drawing criminals into their attacks.

Here, as in many other cities, the American command says, militant Sunni mosques have played a major role in the resistance, serving as centers for insurgents to meet, to plan, to hide, and to store weapons. In a raid in November at the Yassen al Yassin mosque in southern Baghdad, Iraqi units working with Colonel Lanza's troops found nothing. But in the trunks of vehicles outside, they found an extensive arsenal of mortars, fragmentation grenades, rocket launchers, submachine guns, radio-controlled bomb detonators, stolen police flak jackets and black hoods liked those used by terrorist attackers. Several clerics and their assistants were arrested and taken to Abu Ghraib prison.

One tentative success story for the Americans has been Sadr City, the Shiite slum district on the capital's northeastern edge that is home to more than two million people. If election turnout is high anywhere in Baghdad, it is likely to be among the slum's dwellers, mostly followers of Moktada al-Sadr, the fiery Shiite cleric who twice last year mounted uprisings against American troops. After the battering his fighters took in August, Mr. Sadr agreed to a truce, and ordered his men to cooperate with a $160 million American reconstruction effort that employs 18,000 Sadr City residents and involves rebuilding sewers, water pipes, electricity lines and health clinics. But there remain wide swaths of the city where the insurgents, not the Americans or their Iraqi allies, appear to have the upper hand. The most threatening of these are predominantly Sunni districts like Adhamiya, where Mr. Hussein made his last stand as president, appearing on the hood of a car outside a mosque as American troops entered the city from the south.

But the most dangerous place of all, perhaps the most threatening in all Iraq, is the airport expressway, 10 miles of roadway that runs southwest from the city's core to the international airport and the adjacent sprawl of Camp Victory, the American military headquarters. In three months beginning last fall, the American command counted 14 suicide car bomb attacks on American convoys traveling the expressway. American commanders, acknowledging they have little chance of stopping the suicide bombers once the bomb-laden vehicles set out, have authorized the machine-gunners in the last vehicle of each convoy to open fire on any driver who ignores hand signals and warning shots to back off as he approaches a convoy from the rear.

This tactic has led to a growing number of incidents in which American gunners, in Humvees traveling at 50 miles an hour or less, have fired at suspected car bombers, only to discover afterward that the drivers who died were innocent civilians who had missed the warning signals, or perhaps never knew that overtaking American convoys was likely to be fatal. These incidents have compounded a widespread impression among the people of Baghdad that the Americans are careless of Iraqi lives. Dr. Naqib, the dentist, fearful as he is of insurgent attacks, said he feared the Americans more. "The Americans, they are part of the terrorism," he said. "They're so frightened, anything that happens to them, they start shooting right away."

More Information on Iraq
More Information on Occupation and Rule in Iraq


FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.