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Plan calls for zones of safety

January 11, 2007|Julian E. Barnes | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The military's new strategy for Iraq envisions creating "gated communities" in Baghdad -- sealing off discrete areas and forcibly removing insurgents, then stationing American units in the neighborhood to keep the peace and working to create jobs for residents.

The U.S. so far has found it impossible to secure the sprawling city. But by focusing an increased number of troops in selected neighborhoods, the military hopes it can create islands of security segregated from the chaos beyond.

The gated communities plan has been tried -- with mixed success -- in other wars. In Vietnam, the enclaves were called "strategic hamlets" and were a spectacular failure. But counterinsurgency experts say such zones can work if, after the barriers are established, the military follows up with neighborhood sweeps designed to flush out insurgents and militia fighters.

The strategy, described in broad terms by current and former Defense Department officials, is an attempt to re-create the success military units have had in smaller Iraqi cities, most notably Tall Afar.

For the last two years, the military has been focused primarily on training Iraqi security forces. But under the new plan, the primary mission of American combat forces in Baghdad will be to protect Iraqis living in the city.

"In counterinsurgency, by now we have all figured out, the population is the prize," said a Defense official who, like others, spoke on condition of anonymity because details of the program are not final.

Critics of the troop increase President Bush announced Wednesday have said the sheer size of Baghdad, with nearly 6 million people, makes it impossible to replicate the Tall Afar strategy. But counterinsurgency experts say the gated communities concept -- a name taken from the walled-off suburban developments in America -- is a way to concentrate troops on smaller sections of the capital.

"You do it neighborhood by neighborhood," said the Defense official. "Think of L.A. Let's say we take West Hollywood and gate it off. Or Anaheim. Or central Los Angeles. You control that area first and work out from there."

A Baghdad neighborhood could be sealed off by using a highway or a river as a barrier, or by creating roadblocks and checkpoints between neighborhoods, counterinsurgency experts said.

White House officials outlined a plan Wednesday to divide Baghdad into nine districts and station U.S. battalions and Iraqi forces in each. Moving the units out of the super-bases that now surround the city and into urban neighborhoods is crucial to making a gated communities plan work, Defense officials said. The districts themselves would not necessarily be gated but could house one or more gated neighborhoods.

Senior administration officials have said Iraqis will take the lead in implementing the plan. But the violence gripping Baghdad will require that American units be used to quiet the fighting, with Iraqis acting at first as junior partners.

The Tall Afar model

In Tall Afar, a city of 150,000, American forces built a berm around the perimeter to control access, then swept through to rout insurgents and Al Qaeda members. The military followed up by establishing combat outposts in the city, where small units of soldiers could have a round-the-clock presence. The offensive was combined with a push by military leaders to reconcile Shiite Muslim and Sunni Arab factions in the city.

Ideally, once a neighborhood is cleared and regular patrols begin, U.S. forces will have to fight less. Advocates of the approach say gated communities will allow U.S. and Iraqi troops to ease Iraqis' fears of being victims of sectarian violence.

"You can create gated communities because the population wants them, because the population wants to feel secure," said the Defense official. "Or you can create them to control the population and its movements, and make it more difficult for insurgents to operate. That is the theory behind it."

It is not clear which Baghdad neighborhoods will become gated communities, or how many of the enclaves will be created. So far, the Iraqi government has largely restricted American operations in Shiite neighborhoods, and Defense officials say it is crucial that the new plan allow U.S. forces to operate in Sunni as well as Shiite areas.

Retired Army Gen. Jack Keane, a prominent supporter of the troop increase, has advocated security improvements in the mixed neighborhoods of Baghdad, where much of the sectarian fighting is concentrated.

Counterinsurgency experts say the gated communities technique could work in any neighborhood. Some argue that focusing first on a less violent area could give U.S. forces a much-needed win, as well as momentum that could help in tackling the most violent areas.

"You want to start where you will be successful," said Conrad Crane, one of the authors of the military's counterinsurgency manual. "You want to get some success and build from there."

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