Security in Iraq dismal as reports loom

BAGHDAD - When President Bush announced in January what the White House called a "New Way Forward" in Iraq, he said that Iraqi and U.S. troops would improve security while the Iraqi government improved services. Responsibility for security in most of Iraq would be turned over to Iraqi security forces by November.

With better security would come the breathing room needed for political reconciliation, Bush said.

Army Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, and Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, are scheduled to appear on Monday before two House of Representatives committees to discuss security and politics in Iraq. The White House assessment, which must be delivered by Saturday, is expected to hail security gains and hold out hope for improvement - if U.S. troops are given more time.

But interviews with Iraqis, statistics on violence gathered independently by McClatchy Newspapers and a review of developments in the country since the U.S. began increasing troop strength here last February provide little reason for optimism.

Baghdad has become more segregated. Sunni Muslims in the capital now live in ghettos encircled by concrete blast walls to stop militia attacks and car bombs. Shiite militias continue to push to control the city's last mixed Sunni-Shiite neighborhoods in the southwest, by murdering and intimidating Sunni residents and, sometimes, their Shiite neighbors. Services haven't improved across most of the capital - the international aid group Oxfam reported in July that only 30 percent of Iraqis have access to clean water, compared with 50 percent in 2003 - and tens of thousands of Iraqis are fleeing their homes each month in search of safety.

Iraqi security forces remain heavily infiltrated by militias, and political leaders continue to intervene in their activities.

Civilian deaths haven't decreased in any significant way across the country, according to statistics from the Iraqi Interior Ministry, and numbers gathered by McClatchy Newspapers show no consistent downward trend even in Baghdad, despite military assertions to the contrary. The military has provided no hard numbers to back the claim.

The only sign of progress is in the homogenous Sunni Arab province of Anbar, where tribes have turned on al-Qaida in Iraq and established relative security in a once violent area.

But that success has little to do with the 4,000 U.S. troops who were sent to Anbar as part of the surge of 30,000 additional troops to Iraq. Instead, it began more than four months earlier, with the formation last September of the Anbar Salvation Council to fight the escalating terror of Sunni extremists. Officials agree that the anti-Islamist coalition in Anbar has yet to ally itself with the Shiite-led government in Baghdad, and a recent National Intelligence Estimate warned that it might even threaten it.

Elsewhere in Iraq, violence continues to flourish. In the north since the "surge" began, suspected Sunni extremists have carried out some of the deadliest terror attacks of the war, killing hundreds in car and truck bombings.

In Basra, death tolls have increased as rival Shiite militias square off for control.

Taking control of Iraq's capital city was at the center of Bush's surge strategy in January. At least half the U.S. troop increase is taking place here and surrounding suburbs, where the U.S. focused on establishing so-called joint security outposts in Iraqi neighborhoods to be closer to areas where sectarian violence was claiming dozens of lives each day.

The military threw up concrete walls across the capital to foil car bombs and stop Shiite militia members or Sunni insurgents from entering targeted neighborhoods. One military official said U.S. troops were erecting walls as "fast as they could build them." Most "hardened" neighborhoods, encircled with towering gray walls and with single entrances and exits, are Sunni enclaves, military officials said.

The result is a city now sharply divided into sectarian boroughs where the battle lines have only hardened. Some Baghdad residents say they feel somewhat safer in their neighborhoods, but they fear traveling anywhere else in the capital.

Falah Amin, 52, a Sunni from Adhamiyah, called her neighborhood in northeast Baghdad a prison. Adhamiyah was among the first neighborhoods to be walled off by the U.S. military to protect it from Sunni car bombs and Shiite militias.

Unidentified bodies continue to show up daily in Baghdad, though the pace is lower than it was last December, when 1,030 bodies were found, according to statistics compiled by McClatchy Newspapers. The biggest drop came between December and January, before the U.S. began adding troops and after Sadr told his troops to lie low. Since February, when the first additional troops arrived, the trend has been inconsistent - dropping to 596 in February, rising in May to 736, and then dropping again to 428 in August.

Some military officials and many residents attribute the generally lower numbers not to the U.S. security plan, but to the purges in mixed neighborhoods that have left militants with fewer people to kill.

There are few indications that the campaign against al-Qaida has brought the Sunni tribes closer to the Shiite-led Maliki government. Last month, Maliki told McClatchy Newspapers that he won't work with certain Sunni groups that the Americans are working with, and other Shiite politicians have worried that the tribes will oppose the government, a concern echoed by last month's National Intelligence Estimate.