For months, American commanders in Iraq have talked of their desire to withdraw most U.S. troops from Baghdad’s dangerous streets and pull them back to the relative safety of big, wellguarded bases outside the capital.
In an interview Wednesday, the commander of day-to-day U.S. military operations in Iraq explained why he plans to do the opposite -- push more American troops into the city’s neighborhoods, making them responsible for stopping sectarian violence.
Army Lt. Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli also said he wants U.S. soldiers to oversee an army of Iraqis digging water and sewer lines and other public works to create jobs for Baghdad’s residents. Military officials plan to start with a budget of about $75 million to $100 million for the projects.
“How do we stop the violence, the sectarian killing?” Chiarelli said. “We give them hope for a future.”
Chiarelli says his plans are not a rejection of the military’s previous strategy, but they put him squarely on one side of a debate that has divided American generals about how to win the war in Iraq.
The military’s previous strategy has been to reduce the presence of U.S. forces in order to diminish casualties and give insurgent groups fewer targets.
Chiarelli said that pulling back the troops made sense when the enemy was mainly insurgent groups. But now that the violence in Baghdad is increasingly between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, stopping it requires a new approach, he said.
“What we have here is a level of sectarian violence,” he said. “And the way you have to fight this is that you have to have presence on the streets. I don’t know any other way to fight it.”
Under the latest plan, military officials hope to establish zones of security by putting robust U.S. and Iraqi forces in key neighborhoods, then gradually expand those safe areas. Throughout the city, the Americans will try to quickly contain outbreaks of sectarian killing.
Nine thousand U.S. soldiers, 8,500 Iraqi soldiers and 34,000 Iraqi police officers provide security in Baghdad. Military officials plan to bolster those numbers with 4,000 additional U.S. troops and 4,000 more Iraqi soldiers.
But the cornerstone of the new plan is economic development projects, which Chiarelli is known for championing. When he commanded the 1st Cavalry Division in Baghdad from March 2004 to March 2005, he reduced the violence in the Shiite neighborhood of Sadr City by putting many of the fighting-age men to work digging a sewer system.
Reconstruction projects have fallen by the wayside as money has diminished and violence has soared. That violence now has given Chiarelli an opportunity to test his ideas on a grander scale.
Chiarelli dismissed suggestions that the fighting was too serious to begin work projects. Violence, he said, will stop only when the economy improves, Iraqis get back to work and services begin to improve.
“It is absolutely ludicrous this concept that somehow you have to get to a level of security that will allow commerce to occur,” Chiarelli said. “I am not downplaying the importance of security, but the key thing here is getting the people believing their life is going to get better.”
The U.S. has spent billions on reconstruction with much of the money going to fund security for construction projects. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, addressing a joint session of Congress on Wednesday, complained about the money that security costs had consumed and called on Congress to help fund new projects to put Iraqis to work.
“Much of the budget you had allocated for Iraq’s reconstruction ended up paying for security firms and foreign companies, whose operating costs were vast,” Maliki said. “Instead, there needs to be a greater reliance on Iraqis and Iraqi companies.”
Many of the reconstruction projects that were built in the first years of the Iraq war failed to make a difference in regular Iraqis’ lives. Much of the building has focused on large waterpurification plants, sewage-treatment plants or electrical generators. But the U.S. has failed to do enough to make sure its reconstruction projects provided jobs for unskilled Iraqis, and the lack of a steady supply of electricity three years after the U.S.-led invasion rankles here.
The previous U.S. plan for securing Baghdad focused on quickly turning swaths of the city over to Iraqi army and police forces. That plan turned into a shambles with the outbreak of sectarian violence after the bombing in February of the Golden Mosque in Samarra.
“What didn’t we figure? We didn’t figure this sectarian killing,” Chiarelli said
Another much-vaunted Baghdad security plan was launched by Maliki’s government June 14, featuring stepped-up checkpoints and patrols by Iraqi forces. But the number of daily attacks has increased sharply.
The sectarian violence continued Wednesday, as hospital officials reported receiving the bodies of at least 14 men in southern and western Baghdad. All had been shot in the head and bore signs of torture.
The violence also focused on government officials. Two roadside bombs in eastern Baghdad killed a police colonel, his brother and another civilian. Gunmen also kidnapped a ranking Interior Ministry official. Fighting between Iraqi soldiers and insurgents on Haifa Street in central Baghdad left at least six dead, the army said.
Several weeks ago, the British began stepping up their efforts to stop sectarian violence in southern Iraq, a move that seems to be slowing the exodus of the Sunni minority from the city of Basra. On Wednesday, fighting broke out between British soldiers and Shiite militiamen in Basra and the southern city of Amara.
Chiarelli cautioned that the new plan might take months to show progress. But he said the U.S. would move quickly to create rapid-reaction forces to respond to sectarian fighting.
He cited a July 9 attack in which a group of Shiite gunmen rounded up between 36 and 55 Sunni men in Baghdad’s Jihad neighborhood and killed them. Authorities took 2 1/2 hours to respond to calls for help.
“With what happened in Jihad, we have to have a strike force ... that can react to anything that even looks like that,” Chiarelli said.
“We have to be reactive in stopping the revenge killings from occurring because if you are not careful, that focused event begins a chain reaction,” he said. “We have to target the insurgent who comes in and attempts to try and create that signature event. But we also have to target the death squads that are reacting to that signature event.”
For the military, the plan is uncharted ground.
“Quite frankly, in 33 years in the United States Army, I never trained to stop a sectarian fight,” he said. “This is something new.”
Times staff writers Peter Spiegel and Maura Reynolds in Washington and Borzou Daragahi and Shamil Aziz in Baghdad and a special correspondent near Basra contributed to this report.