BAGHDAD - Nearly two months into the new security push in Baghdad, there has been some success in reducing the number of death squad victims found crumpled in the streets each day.And while the overall death rates for all of Iraq have not dropped significantly, largely because of devastating suicide bombings, a few parts of the capital have become calmer as some death squads have decided to lie low.
But there is little sign that the Baghdad push is accomplishing its main purpose: to create an island of stability in which Sunni Arabs, Shiite Arabs and Kurds can try to figure out how to run the country together. There has been no visible move toward compromise on the main dividing issues, like regional autonomy and more power sharing between Shiites and Sunnis.
For American troops, Baghdad has become a deadlier battleground as they have poured into the capital to confront Sunni and Shiite militias on their home streets. The rate of American deaths in the city over the first seven weeks of the security plan has nearly doubled from the previous period, though it has stayed roughly the same over all, decreasing in other parts of the country as troops have focused on the capital.
American commanders say it will be months before they can draw conclusions about the campaign to secure Baghdad, and just more than half of the so-called surge of nearly 30,000 additional troops into the country have arrived. But at the same time, political pressure in the United States for quick results and a firm troop pullout date has become more intense than ever.
This snapshot of the early weeks of the operation, which officially began on Feb. 14, is drawn from American and Iraqi casualty data and interviews with military commanders and government officials.
Already in that time, the military and political reality has shifted from what American planners faced when they prepared the Baghdad operation, continuing a pattern of rapid change that has become painfully familiar since the 2003 invasion.
In the northern and western provinces where they hold sway, and even in parts of Baghdad, Sunni Arab insurgents have sharpened their tactics, using more suicide car and vest bombs and carrying out successive chlorine gas attacks.
Even as officials have sought to dampen the insurgency by trying to deal with Sunni Arab factions, those groups have become increasingly fractured. There are now at least a dozen major Sunni insurgent groups - many fighting other Sunnis as well as the Americans and the Shiite-led government. A deal made with any one or two would be unlikely to be acceptable to the others.
While Shiite militias appear to have quieted in Baghdad so far, elements of them have been fighting pitched battles outside the city, sometimes against one another, sometimes against Sunni Arabs. They are pushing Sunnis out of their homes and attacking their mosques.
And in a new tactic, both Shiite and Sunni militants have been burning down homes and shops in the provinces in recent months.
One American private in the First Battalion, Fifth Cavalry, who was working the overnight shift at a new garrison in western Baghdad, described the Americans' fight this way: "The insurgents, they see what we're doing and we see what they're doing. Then we get ahead, then they figure out what we've done and they get ahead.
"It's like a game of cat and mouse. It's just a really, really smart mouse."
A Shift in Deaths
The incoming five brigades as part of the new security plan will bring the total number of American troops in Iraq to about 173,000 when it is complete, more than at any time since the war began.
Many of the new troops are joining long-term garrisons along with Iraqi forces in particularly violent neighborhoods of Baghdad, keeping up frequent patrols and trying to strengthen relations with Iraqis by meeting with local leaders and residents.
That has put the Americans in the middle of sectarian battlegrounds, and their death rate in the city has nearly doubled. The number of Americans killed in combat or other violence rose to 53 in Baghdad in the first seven weeks of the push, from Feb. 14 to April 2. That is up from 29 in the seven weeks before then.
Diyala Province, just northeast of Baghdad, has also been a trouble spot, bitterly contested by Sunni and Shiite militants. The United States military added a battalion in the province, and the fighting has been fierce, with 15 Americans killed there in the seven weeks starting on Feb. 14. The total from the seven weeks before then was 10.
At the same time, though, the rate of American deaths throughout the country has stayed about the same, with 116 killed in hostile incidents, up from 113 in the prior seven weeks.
As the focus has intensified on Baghdad, deaths have fallen in some outlying areas - even in Anbar Province, the heart of the Sunni rebellion where American marines have long faced intense violence. In the seven weeks after the start of the Baghdad operation, 31 Americans were killed in Anbar, down from 46 in the seven weeks beforehand.
While it is difficult to point to any one reason, in recent months Anbar has been at the center of a fissure in the insurgency between tribes who support the terrorist group Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia and tribes who reject it because it is seen as inviting foreign fighters.
Roadside bombs were by far the most common means of killing Americans. Deaths in Baghdad and Diyala from such explosions more than doubled. In Baghdad, 83 percent of troop deaths since the plan began have been caused by roadside bombs. In Diyala, all but one of the 15 soldiers who died in the seven-week period were killed by roadside bombs. Just four were killed by the bombs in the preceding seven weeks there.
Violence Against Civilians
The Iraqi government and the American military refuse to release overall civilian casualty numbers; both give numbers only for a few categories of deaths, making it difficult to get an overall picture. One of the last official reports on civilian casualties came in January from the United Nations, which, citing morgue and hospital statistics, said at least 34,452 Iraqis were killed last year, or an average of nearly 100 per day.
Over the past seven weeks, American commanders say that the security push has had some success so far in cutting down the number of sectarian execution-style killings - tracked by counting the number of bodies found with gunshot or knife wounds. Military officials say that such killings have dropped 26 percent nationwide and even more in Baghdad.
But other kinds of attacks, like car bombings, have kept the overall civilian death rate high, and in recent days there are anecdotal reports that sectarian executions may be on the rise again.
"We've not seen the overall same significant amount of decline in the overall number of casualties" as in execution killings, Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, spokesman for the American military command, said in a news conference last week.
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The American military believes that much of the drop in executions has come because of decreased activity by Shiite militias and death squads, especially the powerful Mahdi Army militia that claims allegiance to the cleric Moktada al-Sadr.
Many militia leaders have been detained in raids by the American military, according to the Iraqi government, and despite some major car bomb attacks on Shiite areas, the militias appear to have decided to refrain from carrying out revenge killings.
"The cycle of violence is not as predictable," a senior American military official said. "Iraqi people are showing restraint, and the ability of death squads to retaliate is being circumscribed."
However, it appears that not all Shiite cells, Mahdi Army or otherwise, are so patient. American soldiers in sections of western Baghdad, as well as Sunni Arabs living there and in Sunni enclaves south of Baghdad in Babil Province, are reporting that sectarian killings and threats against Sunni Arab families have begun to rise again, after a brief hiatus at the start of the security plan.
"There's been spray paint on walls: 'Get out or you'll pay with your blood,' " said Capt. Benjamin Morales, 28, commander of a company of the 82nd Airborne that oversees a Shiite-dominated section of western Baghdad. There were eight Sunni households in the area at the start of March; three had left by its end.
The Iraqi government has been encouraging displaced families to return to their abandoned homes and offering $200 as an incentive. The government said that 2,000 families had returned by mid-March, but there is no way to verify the numbers.
In Fadhil, a Sunni enclave in eastern Baghdad surrounded by Shiite neighborhoods, residents say Shiite militias have been attacking with mortar shells and sniper fire. They accuse the Shiite-dominated Iraqi security forces of taking part, which Iraqi military officials deny.
"The situation was quiet when the militias left the country, but when they came back, the tension returned," said Wamid Salah Hameed, a community leader in Fadhil. "The military is attacking us and firing at the neighborhood randomly. There is a sectarian feeling among the soldiers in the army."
Meanwhile, Shiite militias have burned shops in a Sunni enclave of Babil Province, and Sunni militias burned Sunni and Shiite homes in Diyala last month.
Sunni militias have been active in Baghdad, too. The number of bodies of their presumed victims that turn up, tortured and shot, appears to have declined, but not halted, in recent weeks. In the past three weeks in some mostly Sunni neighborhoods of western Baghdad, Shiites bringing supplies to displaced families - even displaced Sunni families - have been kidnapped and killed, their bodies left in corner lots.
"We used to see sometimes eight bodies a day," said Sgt. Michael Brosch, of the First Battalion, Fifth Cavalry. "Sometimes they were all beheaded. Then right at the beginning of the security plan, we didn't see any. Now we're seeing them again."
At the same time, deaths and injuries nationwide from vehicle bombs, which are typically associated with Sunni insurgents, particularly Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, have continued at a rapid pace.
January and February were particularly bad months for car bombing deaths; nearly 1,100 were killed in February alone. That number dropped to 783 in March, still high compared with months earlier in the war, according to an American military official. But the overall number of bombings actually increased: there were 108 car bombs that either detonated or were disarmed in March, a record for the war.
Outside of Baghdad, several huge bombings have been responsible for many of the deaths. The worst, last month in Tal Afar, killed 152.
In Anbar, at least six bombings involved a terrifying new weapon: truck bombs that spread chlorine gas, burning victims' lungs and skin. The deadliest of those attacks, in Ramadi on Friday, killed at least 30 people.
A Fractured Government
Most American and Iraqi officials say that the key to Iraq's security is a political agreement that gives Sunni Arabs more power in the government. But the near-term prognosis for that looks grim, as the calm necessary to negotiate such a deal remains elusive.
Some Shiite leaders have publicly said they are prepared to reconcile with the minority Sunnis, who generally prospered under Saddam Hussein's Baathist government. But the Shiites are still loath to give Sunnis any additional power and risk returning to the oppressed status they held for centuries.
Meanwhile, the Kurds in the north are pushing policies that will maximize the powers of their autonomous region, including trying to get control of the ethnically mixed oil-rich city of Kirkuk.
The Sunni Arabs seek several changes in the government's structure. They want Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, a conservative Shiite, to make good on his promise to replace ineffective or corrupt ministers. Mr. Maliki promised the shake-up months ago, but the proposal now appears moribund.
The Sunni Arabs also want the Constitution amended to bring power back to Baghdad and reduce the chance that areas in the oil-rich, Shiite-dominated south will follow the model of Kurdistan and create an autonomous state.
In addition, the Sunni Arabs continue to push for a rollback of purges of Sunni Arabs from government that began after the Shiites came to power in national elections.
But to stop the violence, the ruling Shiites must deal with Sunnis outside the government, in the factionalized insurgency, who can offer few guarantees on any promises to stop bombings against Shiites.
"We talk to people who say they represent the insurgents and they all say the same thing: 'We oppose the occupation, but we don't believe in killing civilians, in killing women and children,' " a senior adviser to Mr. Maliki said. "But our people are dying in bombs every day. Who is killing them?"
Reporting was contributed by Kirk Semple, Hosham Hussein and Khalid al-Ansary in Baghdad, and Andrew W. Lehren and Archie Tse in New York.
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company