- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 15, 2006

Sirens wailed throughout Baghdad yesterday as shoppers rushed out to stock up on food in the face of extended curfews and one of the largest citywide security clampdowns in three years.

U.S. and Iraqi soldiers and police stopped almost every car on major roads and conducted random checks at the neighborhood level as they kicked off a massive operation aimed at restoring security to the city of 6 million people.

Over the past five months, bodies shot in the head, decapitated and some with signs of torture have been strewn in the streets on a daily basis as sectarian, insurgent and criminal violence began to spiral out of control.

The operation, which Iraqi soldiers have said will last for at least one month, is expected to build up over the next few days, fueling fears among residents who are not sure what is going to happen next.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki reassured residents there would be no wholesale storming of neighborhoods. Raids would be directed against specific targets and based on intelligence information, he told reporters yesterday.

“We won’t neglect the humanitarian aspect, because these measures are aimed at allowing people to live in peace,” he said.

Quieter neighborhoods, like Karrada and Jadriyah, had many checkpoints, mainly controlled by Iraqi police.

The military presence was heavier in the city’s “hot spots” where gunfights frequently erupt. Neighborhoods like Saydia, Baiya, Ghazaliya and Adhamiya had fewer checkpoints but many more combined U.S.-Iraqi army foot patrols.

Despite the measures, a car bomb exploded killing four persons in the northern area of Qahira, and gunfights broke out in one Sunni neighborhood, the Associated Press reported.

Ali, a doctor who asked that his last name not be used, said he saw multiple military and police checkpoints as he traveled home from work. Where previously there had been one or two checkpoints, now there are three or four, he said. Each checkpoint was manned by five to 10 soldiers. One reporter was checked four times in a 1-mile stretch.

“They are closing every major road, and checking every single car for everything. If there is a car with two young guys, they will search them. Families are OK,” said Ali. He said traffic was light as most families stayed home, and few students showed up for their annual final exams.

Even Baghdad’s popular “Faqma” ice-cream shop, where students normally celebrate the end of classes and get some respite from the 113-degree heat, was empty. Shops closed early, and city streets were practically deserted by 5 p.m., residents said.

The shutdown was welcomed by many who are tired of the daily onslaught of violence.

“We need safety. We want to feel safe when we walk on the street,” said Sameer Hachem Mohammed, a 35-year-old ice seller.

“Iraqis are used to a strong hand,” agreed Abbas Abdul Jabbar, a generator technician. “The best way to fight terrorism is with an iron fist.”

Newspaper headlines focused more on the security plan than President Bush’s surprise visit to the city Tuesday, mostly backing the operation which aims to end the daily carnage and get the militias under control.

But an anti-U.S. demonstration by followers of radical Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr — who has thousands of armed supporters in his Mahdi militia — was largely shrugged off.

Soldiers manning the checkpoints acknowledged they were tired after weeks of struggling with the deteriorating security situation, but said they were hopeful the new operation would reverse the trend.

“We need the Iraqis to help us so we an help them. Security will come to Baghdad step by step, and God willing we will be safe,” said Iraqi soldier Ahmed Acheeb. “The security plan is very good. We start at 6 a.m. until the curfew at 8 p.m., searching every vehicle. We search the hood, the trunk, the person, and check the car papers. We check those cars with a weapon and check the weapon number with the license.”

Another soldier, Ali Hussein, 20, said the troops were in it for the long haul: “Day and night, we will be in the street. The Iraqi army has canceled all leave for at least one month.”

A special correspondent in Baghdad contributed to this report.

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