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THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ

Normalcy Amid the Violence

Iraq has seen no letup in bloodshed, but increased security patrols in Baghdad have encouraged residents to resume former routines.

June 22, 2005|Borzou Daragahi | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — During a week when insurgents killed at least 15 U.S. troops across Iraq, four American soldiers on a foot patrol through the middle-class Karada district of the capital felt secure enough to stop at a kebab stand for shawarma sandwiches, greasy slices of chicken wrapped in pita bread.

"I'm encouraging soldiers to perform more dismounted patrols and to have more face-to-face interactions with Iraqis," said U.S. Army Col. Edward Cardon, commander of a 3rd Infantry Division brigade that covers much of Baghdad.

College student Degha Abdul Hamid, meanwhile, drove a girlfriend to the lively Zayona commercial strip to shop for shoes and handbags, a previously unheard-of foray for the two single women since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq more than two years ago.

"It's better now, much better," Hamid, 28, said. "I feel safer and I stay out later."

As the bloodshed caused by the insurgency continues to increase, Iraqi police and soldiers are expanding their presence on the streets, controlling traffic and fighting everyday crime. Many residents now say they feel secure enough to attempt to lead more normal lives.

This month, suicide bombers dressed in military uniforms blew themselves up at the base of an elite Iraqi military unit in Baghdad and an Iraqi army mess hall in Khalis, killing at least 27 soldiers. And in Kirkuk, at least 20 people died and more than 80 were injured in a suicide attack on pensioners waiting for their social security checks at a bank.

In all, more than 1,000 Iraqis have died at the hands of insurgents across the country in recent weeks, and 58 U.S. troops have reportedly been killed this month.

Some U.S. officials acknowledge that there's little that Iraqi or American forces can do to quell so determined and lethal an enemy, except possibly drain the insurgents in a long war.

"The Iraqi army is trained to conduct patrols and checkpoints and searches and raids that are either routine or targeted, in coordination with the coalition forces," said Army Lt. Col. James Guillory, an advisor to the Iraqi army brigade that freed Australian hostage Douglas Wood during a raid at a Baghdad home June 12.

"As far as a suicide bomber walking into a restaurant and setting himself off, you have as much control over that as I do. It's a war of attrition. We can only wear them down."

Yet more Baghdad residents are increasingly going about their routines, buoyed by such modest improvements as the sight of Iraqi cops calmly funneling cars through checkpoints, and occasionally pulling suspicious vehicles off to the side for further inspection.

This month, more security forces have been seen in the capital as part of a crackdown on violence nicknamed Operation Lightning.

Professor Suha Azzawi, a law professor and head of a women's rights group, says she has begun to notice more families at parks and friends staying out later. "I started inviting people to my house for dinner or supper, and they would leave as late as 10:30 p.m., or we would go out to a restaurant and leave at 10 p.m.," she said.

Ahlam Jabiri, another university professor, says she's been driving down to visit Najaf and Karbala, the Shiite Muslim shrine cities that have been off-limits to most Baghdad residents for months because of the bandits and insurgents that continue to prowl Iraqi roads. "I'm hearing of fewer kidnappings, theft and rape," she said.

Iraqi and U.S. officials have long argued that the key to fighting the guerrillas is handing over the counterinsurgency program to Iraqi forces. And in recent weeks, a consensus seems to be emerging that Iraqi security forces have become better trained and more effective.

Unlike a year ago, Iraqi police and soldiers don't regularly run away when trouble erupts. Sketchy crime statistics released by the Ministry of Interior appear to show slight declines in crimes such as armed robbery and home invasion over the last few months.

Successes in policing have been accompanied by modest improvements in the nation's political situation. The transitional government, elected with the support of Iraq's majority Shiites and powerful Kurds, has begun the process of bringing in Sunni Muslim Arabs. Many in that group boycotted the Jan. 30 election, and some are at the heart of the insurgency. Most members of the Iraqi political class are confident that they'll have a draft constitution, with some Sunni Arab support, ready for voters by Aug. 15.

That is leading to an improved mood on the streets of Baghdad, despite the bloody attacks.

By all accounts, the number of smartly dressed women out in public without male escorts or Muslim head scarves has increased, an unscientific but, Iraqis say, telling sign of reduced fear on the streets. There have also been more sightings of women driving cars and children playing in the streets after dark, rare during times of great insecurity in Baghdad.

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