Saturday, May 9, 2009

Barry In Charge: Who Cares If More People In Iraq Die?

BAGHDAD -- Violence is on the rise in Iraq as American troops withdraw. A ground-level look at the handover provides one explanation: The Iraqi government is neglecting many of the successful counterinsurgency initiatives it is inheriting from the U.S. military.

In the Adhamiya neighborhood of Baghdad, once an al Qaeda stronghold, contractor Hossam Hadi used to send 1,000 military-aged men out on U.S.-funded jobs to pick up trash and repair bullet-riddled store fronts. That work pacified potential troublemakers, but now he's down to 60 workers.

In Baghdad's Shaab district, residents say that when the constant patrols of U.S. troops gave way recently to Iraqis who manned static posts, kidnappings and robberies rose. And just south of the capital, a former Sunni insurgent hired by the U.S. to keep the peace says his 145 militiamen are angry because they've received only a month's pay since Baghdad took over their program in January.

Many Iraqis fear a security gap just as the U.S. military hands the reins to the Iraqi government. American soldiers are already fading from Iraq's streets ahead of this summer's deadline for the withdrawal of forces from Iraqi cities. The Iraqi government, meanwhile, has been slammed by dwindling oil receipts -- leaving it tens of billions of dollars short in its budget for security and other bills.

All that has coincided uncomfortably with a wave of attacks since late March. Iraqis worry that insurgents and sectarian militias may be regrouping and appraising an Iraqi force that lacks the money and will to replicate tactics the U.S. used to quell violence.

The government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has promised recent budget cuts won't affect security. "The militias and the criminals believe there will be a security vacuum as the U.S. withdraws, and they're testing the Iraqi forces," said government spokesman Tahseen Sheikhly. "But we will show them."

The U.S. counterinsurgency strategy, implemented by Gen. David H. Petraeus in early 2007, called for soldiers to live in bases among the population and run constant foot patrols. It also called for reconciliation with enemies who were willing to negotiate, and encouraged buttressing the economy with jobs for locals.

U.S. officials say job-creation programs like the one Mr. Hadi oversaw in Adhamiya yielded big counterinsurgency gains. Many are now being abandoned.

Mr. Hadi's Iraqi contracting firm, Rosco Co., got its first U.S. contract in 2005, clearing the hulks of bombed-out cars from the streets. It won more U.S. jobs, becoming one of Adhamiya's largest employers. Neighborhood elders erected a billboard thanking Mr. Hadi for the work.

"We bought a lot of security with these jobs," says Army Maj. J.P. Hart, a civil-affairs officer in Baghdad. "Now the city just can't afford to pay these guys."

The U.S. military is trying to persuade the government to take over such projects. But Mr. Hadi, 32 years old, says he hasn't signed a new contract since October. "There are no contracts, no work and no money," he says.

Ashraf Amin, a quiet 26-year-old, says he supported his sick father for the past year and a half on the $12 a day he earned from one of Mr. Hadi's contracts. Driving down Adhamiya's main drag, he pointed to dozens of apartment blocks, store fronts and single-family homes that he painted in pastels. When U.S. funding on his contract ran out late last month, Mr. Amin lost his job.

"Every family I know in this neighborhood has at least one person working on these U.S. contracts," Mr. Amin says. "They don't realize yet that there is no more work coming."

Such programs looked affordable last summer, when U.S. and Iraqi officials started haggling in earnest over the bilateral security pact that serves as the basis for American troop withdrawal. Baghdad pays for about 90% of its budget with oil revenues, and back then, oil prices were around $140 a barrel.

With Iraq's oil selling for about $40 a barrel, Iraqi finance officials have slashed this year's budget from $80 billion to less than $60 billion. They project a $30 billion deficit. U.S. aid, which still pays for a sizeable chunk of Iraq's security forces, is also decreasing.

Iraq is negotiating for a standby loan from the International Monetary Fund. If Baghdad can't get an international lifeline, Finance Minister Baker al-Zubaidy says, "we have a true crisis in the beginning of 2010."

Iraqi security officials are feeling the squeeze. The government says it has frozen security-services hiring. The country's finance ministry has backtracked on promises to boost police salaries across Iraq, says deputy interior minister Adnan Asadi. "Morale is starting to suffer," he says.

The budget woes come as American withdrawal plans kick into high gear. U.S. commanders are required to pull out entirely from Iraqi cities by June 30, though some will stay in Baghdad and Mosul with Iraqi permission.

Meanwhile, violence is increasing. In January, 275 civilians died, followed by 343 in February, 408 in March and 485 in April, according to Iraq Body Count, an independent group that tracks civilian casualties via media reports.

Fatalities are still down sharply from May 2006 to August 2007, when between 2,000 and 3,000 civilians died each month. U.S. and Iraqi officials are encouraged that recent attacks haven't been followed by sectarian reprisals, as they often were in the past.

Even so, the handover to Iraqi control is sparking conflicting feelings in places like Shaab, a poor district next to the Baghdad slum of Sadr City. In recent years, Shaab was overrun by Shiite militias who drove out much of its Sunni minority.

In February 2007, U.S. soldiers turned an abandoned shopping center in the heart of Shaab into a combat outpost, one of 77 bases established throughout Baghdad as part of the surge strategy.

Osama Qaisi, the 52-year-old owner of the Moon ice-cream shop across the street, says U.S. soldiers blocked streets with concrete walls, and the area became a target for insurgents. When the outpost closed in December, he says he cheered. "Praise God, the Americans are gone," he says.

But now, residents here say, criminal gangs have stepped up robberies. Many here describe a wave of kidnappings. Stores close earlier. Mr. Qaisi, pausing to run his fingers through his gray hair, quietly conceded that the district was safer when the Americans were in charge.

Ahmed Haanoun, a member of the Shaab neighborhood council, recalls stepping into his garden before bed many nights last year. At three or four in the morning, he says, he'd often see U.S. soldiers on foot patrols strolling by in the moonlight.

Now, Mr. Haanoun says, Iraqi troops man checkpoints instead of patrolling on foot or in cars. In March, Mr. Haanoun's neighborhood was shaken by a wave of burglaries. Kidnappers with machine guns stormed his neighbors' home at night and snatched their six-year-old daughter, he says, returning her after the family paid a $30,000 ransom. "There is space now for criminals and militias to operate," he says.

Col. Toby Green, the U.S. brigade commander responsible for Shaab, worries that criminals could in some cases be providing funding for insurgents. But he also dismisses Iraqi fears that recent violence is related to the U.S. withdrawal. Shaab has always had above-average crime rates, Col. Green says. "People are nervous, understandably, but it's not borne out by the facts on the ground," he says.

In one of the more controversial and successful programs of the counterinsurgency, the U.S. paid onetime insurgents, predominantly Sunnis, to fight Sunni extremists. Now, the Shiite-dominated government apparently lacks the will to maintain thousands of armed Sunns and the money to find them promised civilian jobs with the government.

The area around Iskandriya, a farm-belt town about a 30-minute drive south of Baghdad, was once dubbed the "triangle of death." The U.S. military has long maintained that insurgents have used this and other difficult-to-reach villages surrounding Baghdad to assemble car bombs before funneling them into the capital.

In 2007, Uday Karim says he grew disillusioned with Al Qaeda's violent tactics and led his 145 insurgents to join forces with the Americans. His so-called Awakening fighters began safeguarding the villages around Iskandriya, and the area grew calm.

The U.S. military has passed off the responsibility for Awakening forces, which have numbered more than 100,000 fighters across Iraq, but Baghdad hasn't paid them in full. Since the government took over Mr. Karim's group in January, it has provided just one month's pay.

Iraq's government says it has addressed bureaucratic snags in the program's transition and that the fighters will be paid. Even so, the budget for Awakening salaries runs out at year's end.

U.S. commanders worry that if Baghdad doesn't foot the bill, group members could become a threat again. The U.S. military believes that recent car bombings in Baghdad were hatched somewhere in this belt of rugged farming villages.

Mr. Karim confirms that earlier this year, his fighters torched a police checkpoint to protest the unpaid salaries. Other fighters, the charismatic 31-year-old says, have stopped working.

On a recent visit to Iskandriya, his once-ubiquitous Awakening forces have largely vanished. A handful of fighters milled about in dun-colored camouflage. As for the rest, Mr. Karim shrugs.

"Who knows what they're doing with their time," he says. "If some individuals decide to fight the government again, no one is going to interfere." (source)

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