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Baghdad curfew eased as surge scores successes

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 4, 2007

BAGHDAD -- American and Iraqi soldiers yesterday killed six terrorists and captured another 41 insurgents and death-squad suspects in operations in Baghdad and outside Fallujah, military officials said.

The raids were part of the ongoing enormous effort by U.S. and Iraqi security forces to break the backs of the various armed groups warring in Iraq. The Iraqi government cited the success of that operation yesterday in announcing that the nightly curfew will be pushed back by two hours.

In Baghdad, a U.S. Stryker battalion and an Iraqi battalion fanned out in east Mansour, an area of the city where Shi'ite death squads have been forcing Sunni families out of their homes and replacing them with followers of Muqtada al-Sadr's radical militia.

Directed by Iraqi and American intelligence sources, the soldiers of the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment of the Stryker Brigade Combat Team raided houses overnight, capturing nine members of what they said was a known death-squad cell.

"We think they are responsible for the deaths of 22 Sunnis in this area, as well as [rocket-propelled grenade] and small-arms attacks," said an intelligence officer involved in the operation who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

In separate operations, coalition forces killed six al Qaeda in Iraq terrorists and captured 13 other "facilitators" yesterday morning south of Fallujah and in al Qaim, on the border with Syria, the U.S. military said.

The men arrested in Baghdad were swiftly flex-cuffed, blindfolded and hauled off to one of the city's detention centers, where they sat with their backs against a wall waiting to be screened by U.S. medical personnel.

One man came in whimpering and limping on the arms of two American soldiers, his arm and leg bandaged after trying to escape the raid by jumping over several walls. Altogether, 28 detainees were brought into the holding center from raids across Baghdad.

The raids were part of the stepped-up U.S. security presence in Baghdad, but the significance is hard to judge. Although the military actions yesterday interrupted one death squad, the intelligence officer said, the long-term impact could be determined only by "going back to the neighbors and asking them if they feel safer now."

Iraqis say several neighborhoods have improved since the security plan went into operation almost eight weeks ago, an appraisal reflected in pushing back the start of the nightly curfew to 10 p.m.

Brig. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, the spokesman for the Baghdad security operation, said the decision was made "because the security situation has improved and people needed more time to go shopping."

However, residents of other neighborhoods say they are seeing a return to sectarian executions.

A father of two girls said he was moving out of his area after he and his family listened from their house as a teenage neighbor pleaded in the street for a Shi'ite death squad to spare his father's life. They killed him anyway.

"The Shi'ite militia are making trouble," said Hassan, who asked that his full name not be used. "They are idiots, stupid." After almost four years of war and a week of finding corpses outside his door, Hassan said, he has to move.

American forces, such as the Stryker brigades operating across the capital and in Diyala province, are working 12- to 14-hour days to clear both Sunni and Shi'ite neighborhoods block by block and house by house.

They also are trying to work side by side with the Iraqi army and police in order for them to establish trust among the local population. Many Iraqis feel the Iraqi forces are corrupt and part of the death squads.

"I myself never trust any Iraqi police and army," said a young woman called Jenan, whose pregnant sister was killed in a terrorist bombing.

Staff Sgt. Brian Long, 31, a fire support specialist for Alpha Company, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment with the Stryker Brigade Combat Team, said it was still "too early to tell if the surge is working."

He thinks progress has been made. "Even coming to an agreement to not kill each other is a step in a positive direction; it has happened in some neighborhoods," he said.

Layla, a Kurdish woman who lives in Baghdad, said shops were beginning to reopen on the shell-pocked main street of her neighborhood, which once bustled with juice stands, coffee shops, hamburger restaurants and small kitchenware stores.

"They attacked [the Zayoona neighborhood] several times in the last three or four months, but now people feel safe enough to open their stores," she said.

It is "not exactly" safe to go to the market, she said. "You don't know who is going to kill you, or kidnap you."

While most Iraqis are withholding judgment on the security surge, a cross-section of women and men said the U.S. military was the only thing preventing complete chaos.

"If they retreat and leave everything to the Iraqis, at that time the civil war in Iraq will start," Hassan said.