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Plan calls for zones of safety

Times Staff Writer

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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.”

The gated communities model is an updated version of the strategic hamlets model used in Vietnam. There, people were moved to villages the military thought it could defend, or were moved to entirely new villages.

“It didn’t work,” Crane said. “They ended up locking up the insurgents with the population in these new hamlets.... It actually helped the Viet Cong with recruiting.”

But the strategy worked when used by the British in Malaya in the 1950s, successfully cutting off the insurgents from the population and from their supplies, Crane said. It also was used by the French in fighting insurgents in Algiers in the 1950s, and by the British in ensuing decades in Northern Ireland, said Marine Lt. Col. Lance A. McDaniel, another author of the military counterinsurgency manual.

‘Cultural sensitivity’

In Iraq, Crane said, the strategy could work because it would not involve moving people, but rather providing security so they could remain in their neighborhoods.

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“It would be done with much more cultural sensitivity,” Crane said. “You are trying to identify who belongs and who doesn’t. You need to know who is supposed to be there and who is not. When someone outside the area shows up, they are often the ones creating the problems.”

It would be difficult to completely seal off the gated communities from foot traffic. But military officers believe stopping vehicular traffic will prevent a large portion of munitions and weapons from entering secured areas. Keeping U.S. forces inside the gated communities is vital to the success of such strategies, McDaniel said.

“You have a unit which has responsibility for an area, and they are doing active patrolling day and night with the Iraqi security forces,” McDaniel said. “People get to know you. It is a lot different than holing up in a base somewhere and going through a few times a day.”

Counterinsurgency experts say that once American and Iraqi forces succeed in holding an area, they can use reconstruction money to create jobs for citizens in the area. The hope is that with improved stability and jobs programs, the zone of security could begin to expand throughout Baghdad.

At the same time, advocates say, the gated communities can result in better intelligence for U.S. units.

In addition to setting up barriers and checkpoints, the military will issue identification cards that will allow residents to be inside the secured area.

However, Iraqis have resisted using identity cards and would probably object to an official census, said Kalev Sepp, a counterinsurgency expert at the Naval Postgraduate School who expressed skepticism about the plan.

“Tall Afar succeeded in large measure because of one man, Col. H.R. McMaster,” Sepp said, referring to the popular Army commander and author. “What we would need is 10 or 20 more H.R. McMasters, and then we have a good chance.”

But the authors of the counterinsurgency manual argue that McMaster’s techniques have been studied, discussed and enshrined in Army doctrine so that other commanders can adapt his methods.

“They all have a common language now,” Crane said. “They know what they are supposed to be doing.”

julian.barnes@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Creating a gated community

1. Troops would seal off a discrete neighborhood using natural and artificial barriers such as rivers, highways, roadblocks and checkpoints.

2. Troops would sweep through the area, attempting to clear it of insurgents, militias and unauthorized weapons.

3. American forces would hold the area by creating small bases or combat outposts, ideally staffed by Iraqi as well as U.S. forces. The bases would allow units to remain in the area and provide round-the-clock protection. Units would patrol continuously to prevent outbreaks of violence.

4. Access to the area would be strictly controlled through checkpoints that would prevent outsiders, fighters and criminals from entering. Residents would be issued identification badges, and American and Iraqi forces could create a log of everyone who entered or left.

5. American and Iraqi forces would conduct a census to determine who lived in the area and the relationships between families and neighborhoods. Some officers believe such efforts are the foundation that allows units to develop intelligence about groups of insurgents or militia fighters.

6. Once violence began to subside, American forces could create public works projects and attempt to restart municipal services in order to provide jobs for residents.

7. Once the area was secured, U.S. forces could attempt to expand the security zone to encompass other areas.

Source: Times reporting


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