Worse expected yet
US forces persist in bombing towns and cities as Baghdad's new security plan continues in the implementation phase, writes Nermeen Al-Mufti
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A US soldier secures the site where a bomb was hidden inside a mini-bus that exploded in central Baghdad on Monday
On the fifth day of implementing Baghdad's new security plan -- code-named Operation Imposing Law -- two car bombs killed 56 civilians and wounded dozens in a religiously mixed neighbourhood in eastern Baghdad. On the same day, five bodies were found, showing signs of torture and gunshots. In the first five days of the security plan, 50 people were killed in acts of violence and 60 bodies were found in various parts of Baghdad.
The day the new security plan started, President Bush held his first news conference since his party lost the mid-term elections last November. He said the US should win the war in Iraq, because failure would mean that terror would come to the US. Two days later, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrived in Baghdad for talks with President Jalal Talabani, Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki, and several Iraqi and US officials. Rice said she was optimistic about the security plan but added a note of caution, saying that it would be premature to predict the plan's outcome.
Speaking to 250 US officials at the US Embassy in Baghdad -- formerly the Presidential Palace -- Rice echoed Bush's sentiments, saying that the US must win the war. She also told her audience that they were doing "noble" work in Iraq.
Sources close to the Iraqi government told Al-Ahram Weekly that Rice asked Maliki to work harder towards national reconciliation. Reportedly she expressed dismay that a law on the distribution of oil resources hadn't been yet passed. According to these sources, Rice cautioned that Baghdad might yet see days where acts of violence increase rather than decrease.
According to Iraqi and US sources, acts of violence dropped by 80 per cent in Baghdad following the implementation of the security plan. Speaking at a news conference in the Green Zone, Brigadier General Qassem Al-Musawi said that the Institute of Forensic Medicine received 20 bodies in two days, which is much less than the 40 or 50 bodies that used to come to the institute every day before the plan went into effect. Al-Musawi said that 130 displaced families managed to go back to their homes and that shops had reopened in Alawi and Halla and Haifa Street.
Reacting to reports published in the Iraqi and UK press that security personnel destroyed and robbed the contents of homes and automobiles during searches, Al-Musawi said that homeowners would from then on be asked to fill out a form stating that no violations happened during the searches.
The wife of a university professor told the Weekly that she had put her jewellery, important papers, and thousands of dollars in her purse, because she was told that purses wouldn't be searched. But security forces searching her home threatened to kill her if she didn't hand over the purse. Referring to Al-Musawi's comments, she said it would be easy for security personnel to force the owners to sign anything they want.
As for the return to normality of Haifa Street, a resident of the street said he was able to get into his flat, but didn't bring his family with him. He added that American and Iraqi soldiers were patrolling the area and were deployed around residential compounds. According to an Interior Ministry official, the new plan started with Al-Azamiya, Al-Dawra, Al-Kazimia and Al-Sadr City, and that other areas of Baghdad would be targeted soon.
Jenan Ali, a specialist in Iraqi affairs, says that American and Iraqi security officials know well that the reason for the drop in sectarian violence is that the ringleaders of the death squads have fled the country or are hiding in safe areas. Ali's impression is that the security plan bears no sign of sectarian bias so far. Unfortunately, security personnel have committed violations and thefts, and some detentions may have been inspired by sectarian motives. Ali believes that the search by Iraqi forces of the Baratha Mosque -- the stronghold of Sheikh Jalaleddin Al-Saghir, a parliamentarian for the Shia Alliance Bloc -- was a good step.
Many rumours have been circulating about Baratha Mosque, considered by Shias to be their fifth holiest sanctuary. Some claim that the mosque served as a centre of command for death squads that engaged in sectarian violence. The mosque witnessed two suicide attacks that killed dozens last year.
A US statement said that Iraqi Special Forces entered Baratha Mosque to search for individuals suspected of murder, kidnapping and torture. The mosque was said to have been used for housing militiamen and storing weapons. According to the statement, coalition forces encircled the mosque while Iraqi troops went in to look for arms. Reportedly, Iraqi soldiers found three rocket launchers and 80 rifles. They also confiscated $300,000, a computer and various documents from Al-Saghir's office.
According to a statement published on the Baratha website, the confiscated weapons belonged to the Interior Ministry and the communication equipment belonged to the Ministry of Transport and Communication. The statement says that a number of passports belonging to victims of violence were confiscated; passports of people the mosque was helping seek treatment abroad, the statement adds.
Baratha Mosque was closed to prayers last Friday in protest against the search. Iraqi travellers said they saw Sheikh Al-Saghir at the airport and he may have left the country.
Meanwhile, a spokesman for the Iranian Foreign Ministry said Moqtada Al-Sadr was not in Iran. President Talabani, an adviser to Prime Minister Al-Maliki, and the spokesman for US forces, however, say that Al-Sadr left for Iran ahead of the implementation of the security plan.
Political commentators say that Al-Sadr, who didn't appear in Al-Kufa Mosque in the last Friday prayers, may have left the country for fear of being detained. Rumours stated that the US authorities would press charges against him in connection with the killing of Abdul-Maguid Al-Khuei in Najaf in April 2003. During a visit to Karbala last week, Prime Minister Al-Maliki denied that his government planned to prosecute Al-Sadr.
Other security plans are being implemented around the country. UK forces have launched their own security plan in Basra. And local officials in Babel, Kut, Salaheddin, and Nasiriya governorates announced security measures to coincide with Operation Imposing Law.
Meanwhile, US forces continued to shell the villages of Diyali and the city of Ramadi. The towns of Al-Ratba and Haditha, both close to the Syrian border, remain under siege.
Kirkuk remained tense due to sporadic acts of violence. Arab clan leaders have voiced their opposition to a decision by the Normalisation Committee to deport Arab families that came to the city as part of an Arabisation campaign of the former regime in the early 1980s. Turkoman officials say the committee is biased to Kurds and they demand the deportation of 600,000 families that were brought to the city from northern Iraq, or even from outside the country, in what was seen as an attempt to "Kurdicise" the city.
As the Americans prepare to celebrate the fourth anniversary of the invasion, more than five million Iraqis remain displaced by the war, three million of whom having fled the country. Should the violence continue, UN sources say, another million Iraqis are likely to leave their homes.