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The San Francisco Chronicle June 11, 2006

INSURGENCY AND CHAOS

Sectarian fighting is escalating despite apparent progress. When will it end?

By Anna Badkhen

Baghdad -- The roadside bomb ripped through the packed dirt of the median, leaving behind the kind of scorched, shallow crater that speckles Baghdad today. Razor-sharp shrapnel bit into the passenger side of the rusted, white flatbed truck, wounding the Iraqi driver and his passenger, who had pulled over to allow a U.S. Army convoy to pass. No Americans were hurt; their heavily armored humvees were too far from the blast.

As U.S. military medics treated the wounded Iraqis on the dusty sidewalk, sinister questions loomed: Was the bomb, which had been crudely made from an 82mm mortar shell and detonated with a remote-control device, meant for the American soldiers? Were the two civilians unlucky to get in the way? Or were the Iraqis -- two Shiite Arabs driving through a heavily Sunni Arab neighborhood -- the real targets of the bombing, which the Americans just happened to witness?

In the chaos that engulfs Baghdad today, it is hard to tell. The list of would-be killers has grown too long; so has the list of targets. Quite simply, the Iraqi capital has become the most dangerous city on Earth.

"There's (al Qaeda in Iraq), there's local Sunni extremists, there are Shia insurgent groups, there are criminal gangs," said Col. Tom Vail, commander of the 506th regimental combat team of the 101st Airborne Division, which patrols eastern Baghdad.

When U.S. troops invaded the Iraqi capital in 2003, life in Baghdad was perilous, but the boundaries of violence were clearly drawn. There was a lot of looting and some random street violence. Basic infrastructure, such as telephone lines, water and electricity, had collapsed, and Iraqis were having a hard time trying to live their normal lives. Car bombs -- which targeted Westerners or Iraqis perceived to be working for the U.S.-led coalition -- were few. Insurgents planted roadside bombs and fired mortars and rocket-propelled grenades, trying to kill U.S. forces, even if civilians sometimes got hurt by accident.

Iraqis, who frequently became victims of American gunfire, learned to stay away when U.S. convoys approached. For ordinary Baghdadis, Americans were the most dangerous force around.

Today, no one in Baghdad knows where the next attack will come from -- neither the Iraqis, who find staying out of the violence an increasingly difficult task, nor the Americans, whose mission in Iraq has become muddled. They are fighting a relentless insurgency that targets them, but they are also spectators in an escalating sectarian conflict.

Despite last week's killing of al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Iraq's most-wanted terrorist, experts say the violence is not likely to subside soon.

"Al-Zarqawi was only one among many actors -- including other jihadists, Sunni and Shiite nationalist groups and various criminal gangs -- participating in the violence in Iraq," Strategic Forecasting, a private analysis group, wrote in an online report last week. "The death of a jihadist leader like al-Zarqawi is not likely to have a significant effect on the nationalist insurgents' operations."

Insurgent attacks against U.S. forces are at the highest they have been since American commanders first started recording them in 2004, the Pentagon reported to Congress on May 30. The report said that between Feb. 11 and May 12 of this year, insurgent attacks averaged 600 a week across the country -- up from an average of 400 a week in 2004 -- and predicted that they will not subside at least until 2007.

"Overall, average weekly attacks during this 'government transition' period were higher than any of the previous periods," stated the report.

The main weapons of the insurgency -- roadside bombs, car bombs and rocket and mortar attacks -- have also become the instruments of retribution for religious militias, which target civilians in busy markets and near mosques.

In an effort to involve the Iraqis in security operations -- a crucial building block in the Pentagon strategy to bring Americans home -- U.S. troops are relying on Iraqi police and army units. Americans encourage Iraqis to patrol large swaths of territory, despite reports and investigations that show that some Iraqi security forces are complicit in kidnappings, killings and other gang activities orchestrated by insurgents and sectarian militias.

Insurgents, sectarian militias and criminal gangs -- sometimes posing as police and paramilitary groups -- slaughter civilians in increasingly brazen attacks, such as the midmorning raid Monday on a central Baghdad bus station by gunmen in police uniforms. The gunmen grabbed passengers and merchants at random, beat them, put bags on their heads, herded them into more than a dozen cars and drove off. The Shiite-dominated Interior Ministry, which oversees the police, denied it was behind the attack.

Although American troops say they won't tolerate sectarian violence, they do little to stop it. Lt. Col. Bill Burleson, whose 1-87 infantry battalion of the 1st Brigade, 10th Mountain Division patrols two volatile Sunni neighborhoods in northwestern Baghdad, said that although his unit found victims of dozens of sectarian killings, it did not investigate any of them.

"We do preliminary work -- talk to people around there to try to understand what occurs, looking for patterns," Burleson said. After the American soldiers help put the bodies in mortuary bags, Iraqi police officers -- whom many Sunnis accuse of perpetrating violence -- take over, he said.

"I just don't know what the Iraqi police do" about the investigations, Burleson admitted.

If there's a positive side for U.S. troops, it is that, despite occasional shootings of civilians and even the report of U.S. Marines executing up to 24 Iraqi civilians in Haditha in November, most Iraqis are increasingly aware that Americans are not responsible for the worst violence. Some Sunni civilians say they prefer American units to patrol their streets rather than Iraqi ones.

But as the image of U.S. soldiers as the most-feared force in Baghdad dissipated, so did the belief by Baghdadis that the American troops are in control of more than just the ground they stand on, when they stand on it. In the affluent streets of Amariya, a middle-class Sunni neighborhood in northwestern Baghdad, residents who live in fear behind elegantly pruned hedges complain that violence stops only when the Americans show up -- and only for as long as they stay in the neighborhood.

"Americans come here, and then there is no killing. As soon as Americans go away -- killing everywhere," said one Iraqi. And in the neighboring Ghazaliya neighborhood last month, two gunmen shot a man in a field in broad daylight just 200 yards from a house in which a U.S. Army platoon was questioning a suspected insurgent.

In the capital, where nearly a quarter of all of the 130,000 U.S. troops currently deployed to Iraq are stationed, there are entire neighborhoods that Americans avoid, such as Sadr City, the stomping ground of the militant Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

"There is no one to protect us," summed up one high school teacher in Amariya.

Caught in the cross fire, ordinary Baghdadis find new routes to work and stores to avoid the more dangerous neighborhoods, learn new habits to help them live with the constant bombings, and look for oases of normalcy amid the everyday violence.

When firefights erupt or bombs go off in the upscale Jihad neighborhood, one Sunni woman rushes to protect her 9-month-old daughter. "I hug her tight and cover her with my body to shield her. She starts looking directly into my eyes to see whether I am playing with her, I start to sing when she does that," said the woman.

The Chronicle agreed not to disclose the names of Iraqi civilians interviewed for this story to protect them from retaliation attacks.

Despite three years of combat, arrests or killings of hundreds of suspected insurgents, and steady seizures of enemy weapons caches, U.S. forces have not been able to weaken the elusive insurgency.

"Seems like every time we change our techniques, they adapt," said one soldier from Alpha Company of the 506th regimental combat team of the 101st Airborne Division, whose engineer platoon goes out almost nightly to search for roadside bombs in the capital.

It is hard to understand the full spectrum of what U.S. troops are doing to combat the insurgency, because many of their tactics and rules of engagement are classified. But at first glance, U.S. troops are relying on the same methods to combat the insurgency as they did in 2003, when the attacks began -- they just wear more body armor and drive in more heavily armored humvees.

They look for weapons and guerrillas in door-to-door raids, stop and search cars at impromptu checkpoints, and use tips from neighbors to locate suspected insurgents. At night, engineer units go out to look for roadside bombs the same way American troops have been doing it since this war began: driving slowly down a potholed road in loud, armored military vehicles, eyes peeled to the side of the road, meticulously scanning the dust beneath eucalyptus trees and palm groves for sinister shadows.

"My sense is that (Lt. Gen. Peter) Chiarelli," the Multinational Corps Iraq commander, "and others near him understand counterinsurgency warfare quite well, and my hope is that therefore things have improved," said Michael O'Hanlon, an expert on Iraq at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "But it is hard to see the evidence directly. And I certainly don't see any signs of a diminishing insurgency."

And, just as they did three years ago, American troops console themselves with promises that the end of the insurgency is just around the corner.

"Insurgency, they're definitely gonna decline, because we've caught (weapons) caches, caught their leaders," said Vail, the 506th commander.

All signs, analysts say, point in the opposite direction.

Insurgents "regenerate themselves," said John Pike, director of the military studies Web site GlobalSecurity.org. "The supply of those wishing to embrace martyrdom is way up. The conventional wisdom is that it typically takes a decade (to exhaust an insurgency), so we're much closer to the beginning of this thing than the end of it."


Copyright 2006, San Francisco Chronicle