Operation Baghdad -- A Special Report from the Streets of the City
In many cases these are combat missions, not routine surveillance patrols, and the sounds of the helicopters heavy machineguns can often be heard in the distance; sometimes far away, sometimes coming closer.
If the star in the sky is the Apache, the star on the ground is the Stryker armored vehicle. One can hardly avoid meeting Strykers in Baghdad these days. Everybody here is talking about the astounding presence of this armored castle with its surrounding steel bars. With its huge mass and powerful headlights that can be seen from hundreds of meters away it is pure intimidation.
Today in Baghdad, American troops not only man checkpoints on main streets, but are also running daily patrols through the inner streets in residential blocs. Typically a patrolling unit will choose a number of homes to meet their occupants. It's more like getting familiar with the locals than searching; the commander of the patrol talks to the head of the household and meets the members of the family. If one of them happens to know English the commander usually ask the translator to stay outside; most Iraqis prefer not to speak before other Iraqis when it comes to security concerns.
During such meetings the American officer introduces himself to the locals and explains to them the nature of his unit's mission in the neighborhood. This is always followed questions on whether there were terrorists around and on the type of security issues in the area. The meetings sometimes end with taking a photograph with the head of the household; to memorialize the occasion and possibly for the unit's records.
In our area the sounds of gunfire have hardly stopped the past few days. This morning I heard some explosions nearby, but I couldn't figure out what was going on. The explosions intensify from time to time depending on the intensity and proximity of clashes. In general, the news reports we get in the city, and the information we hear from friends and relatives, indicate that most of the fighting is going on in Sleikh, Qaqhera, Azamaiya, al-Fadhl and Haifa street.
The fuel shortage is still a big daily concern for Baghdadis. State electricity is available for only a couple of hours a day; sometimes not at all.
It's becoming very difficult to predict what's going to happen the next hour. In addition to the dangers of militia or insurgent attacks, you can't tell when a bridge or a street will be suddenly blocked. At any minute you can find yourself stuck between two groups of Humvees or Strykers, or even in the middle of a military operation standing between you and your destination. That's when you call home or work to explain the delay, or calm down a worried friend or relative.
Although the major Baghdad plan isn't officially launched yet, every day we see several joint operations against targets in and around the city. Still, according to the latest leaked reports, it seems as if the major implementations of the plan are going to wait until the beginning of next month,.
The government here says they are waiting for the buildup of participating troops to be completed, but I think it's more likely that they are waiting for the Ashura ceremonies to end to allow pilgrims to travel between Baghdad and the shrines safely.
The waiting is proving to be more of a burden on the people of Baghdad than the operation itself would be. Patience is fading under the pressure of the increasing numbers of suicide attacks and the civilian deaths they cause. Baghdadis are desperately waiting for the operation to begin because they hope it can reduce the occurrence of these deadly attacks that distribute death equally among civilians.
However, and despite the spike in suicide bombings there's a good sign. The numbers of unknown bodies that carry signs of torture have decreased significantly over the last two weeks, an official in the health ministry told al-Sabah:
[The source told al-Sabah that the number of unknown bodies that are collected by the security forces and brought to the morgue has drastically decreased...the number of bodies in the refrigerators is only 35 now and was as low as 11 on one day. Through daily presence near the morgue Al-Sabah noticed a significant decrease in the number of people searching for missing relarives]
Just so you get the picture -- these numbers do not represent daily tolls but the number of bodies that accumulate at the morgue waiting for relatives to identify and receive them.
While officials in the defense ministry wouldn't talk about specifics they are making statements about the general scope of the Baghdad plan.
The spokesman of the ministry Mohammed al-Askari said, [Translation] "The army is going to receive new weapons and equipment from the US and South Africa this March and he pointed out that units that received orders to redeploy to Baghdad from other provinces have been replaced by other units from elsewhere but he didn't elaborate."
On the other hand the defense minister said in a televised statement that: "The new plan will focus on securing Baghdad and its suburbs, and a security belt will be established around the city...the army will later carry out operations in Diyala, Salah Addin and Anbar to chase down the militants."
The two statements indicate that operations will not be limited to Baghdad alone but will include other provinces in a number of phases. It also suggests that more troops and weapons will be poured into the battlefield as the operation proceeds.