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Everyday choices spell life or death

April 26, 2007|Tina Susman | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Mohammed Azzawi, his brother and a friend faced a bedeviling choice as they neared their home in one of Baghdad's deadliest neighborhoods: They could take a road recently closed by U.S. troops where motorists jump the curb and drive on the sidewalk, or an open route haunted by abductions and killings.

It is the sort of dilemma Iraqis encounter every day as they navigate a city with increasing numbers of U.S. and Iraqi soldiers, but still dominated by danger and uncertainty.

More than two months after the United States and Iraq launched a new plan to stanch the capital's violence, life for residents has become a game of choices dictated by concrete barriers, traffic-choking checkpoints and the latest market bombing.

U.S. and Iraqi officials cite trends they say indicate progress: fewer death squad killings, a rising number of suspected insurgents detained, more troops on the ground. But such data mean little to Iraqis whose lives have been upended by invasion, civil war and now the latest security clampdown. For them, the plan is only as good as the calm it can bring to their neighborhoods, streets, and families. That has been as varied as the violence itself, which on any given day might result in 100 deaths, or 10.

In interviews in Sunni, Shiite, and mixed areas where U.S. and Iraqi troops are now stationed, a minority of Iraqis said the security plan had made their lives better. Most said any optimism they had felt at the start had faded in the face of continued violence and additional headaches brought about by checkpoints and road closures.

Azzawi's driver complained that jumping the curbs would damage his blue Chevy Celebrity, so they took the alternate road toward their home in the city's Ghazaliya neighborhood.

They were stopped at a checkpoint manned by uniformed Interior Ministry commandos, whose ranks are suspected of being riddled with Shiite militiamen. The car's occupants, all Sunnis, were uneasy. Azzawi's neighbor had warned him to avoid this spot. Three of his relatives, the neighbor had told him, had been abducted there and killed a month earlier.

The commandos whispered among themselves. They ordered the driver to open the trunk.

"They had a look and then went aside and had more whispers. They made some phone calls on their mobiles," Azzawi said. "Then they came and asked for our IDs, but they did not look at them."

Instead, the men locked their eyes on the car, as if considering their next move.

Suddenly, a U.S. military convoy came rumbling down the road. The Iraqi commandos became flustered. "Go! Go!" they told Azzawi, quickly handing back the IDs. The car sped off.

"It was too close," Azzawi said days later, as he recounted the incident.

After that scare, Azzawi and his neighbors considered marching to a U.S.-Iraqi security outpost to demand better protection, but decided against it. They were afraid of being mistaken for troublemakers and shot.

The security push began Feb. 13, and of five U.S. combat brigades pledged to the plan, three have arrived and the rest are due in June. In all there will be an additional 21,500 front-line U.S. troops on the ground, mostly in Baghdad. Fifty thousand additional Iraqi troops also have arrived as part of the operation, said Army Lt. Col. Christopher Garver, a military spokesman.

More than 50 outposts have been set up across Baghdad to increase security for neighborhoods and to foster communication with residents, Garver said. Troops have seized an average of 36 weapons caches a week, up from about 16 a week before the crackdown, he said.

But Iraqis said the neighborhood patrols they had hoped for had not materialized. Neither has the trust in troops that U.S. military officials say is crucial to the plan's success.

Some residents do say the new push has improved their lives. Haji Ismail Ibrahim, a Sunni taxi driver who lives with his Shiite wife in the mixed area of Shaab, in northeast Baghdad, is one.

"Before the surge I was afraid to leave our doorstep. I didn't even go buy bread," he said. Now, soldiers at checkpoints stare inside car windows and sometimes force people to get out of their cars for searches, Ibrahim said. "If you have nothing to hide, there is nothing to be afraid of."

Most residents, though, say the traffic-clogging military checkpoints are the only visible sign of the initiative, and that the backups they create are providing new targets to bombers.

"We are calling it the traffic-jam plan rather than the security plan, because traffic jams are the only things that have increased," said Isam Jasim of Sadr City, an impoverished Shiite district where U.S. and Iraqi troops established a presence in early March. Now, entering the massive neighborhood from central Baghdad requires going through one of three checkpoints, the roads to which are usually jammed with cars, taxis and minivans caught in bottlenecks.

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