By Jim Michaels - USA Today
Posted : Friday Jan 18, 2008 9:38:59 EST
About 75 percent of Baghdad's neighborhoods are now secure, a dramatic increase from 8 percent a year ago, when President Bush ordered more troops to the capital, U.S. military figures show.
The military classifies 356 of Baghdad's 474 neighborhoods in the "control" or "retain" category of its four-tier security rating system, meaning enemy activity in those areas has been mostly eliminated and normal economic activity is resuming.
The data given by the military to USA Today provide one of the clearest snapshots yet of how security has improved in Baghdad since roughly 30,000 additional American troops arrived in Iraq last year.
U.S. commanders caution that the gains are still fragile, but at the moment U.S. and Iraqi forces "basically own the streets," said Army Col. Ricky Gibbs, a brigade commander in southern Baghdad.
The fight to control Baghdad is the centerpiece of the counterinsurgency strategy launched a year ago by Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq. The plan, popularly known as the "surge," seeks to reduce sectarian and other violence by moving troops off large bases and into dangerous neighborhoods to protect civilians.
The 310 neighborhoods in the "control" category are secure but depend on U.S. and Iraqi military forces to maintain the peace. The 46 areas in the "retain" category have reached a level where Iraqi police and security forces can maintain order, a more permanent fix. The remaining areas have fewer security forces based there, though they are not necessarily violent.
In February 2007, when additional U.S. forces began arriving, only 37 Baghdad neighborhoods were in the "control" and "retain" categories.
The drop in violence in Baghdad and elsewhere helped avert a religious civil war, said retired Marine Col. Thomas Hammes, an author.
Risks remain. Iraq's government has been slow to restore basic services such as electricity and water in some areas.
"In areas that are in 'control' status, the complaint is not security," Gibbs said. "The complaint is essential services."
The military is wary of handing over security responsibility too quickly to Iraqi forces.
"There are concerns we'll pull out of here too fast just because we have such great gains," Gibbs said by phone from Iraq.
The Iraqi government has also failed to take full advantage of the improved security by passing major laws, such as a plan to share oil revenues, that could ease tensions between Sunnis and Shiites.
Meanwhile, U.S. troop levels are scheduled to start coming down again by the middle of this year. Although weakened and pushed out of Iraq's major cities, al-Qaida remains focused on trying to dominate the capital, said Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, the No. 2 U.S. commander in Iraq.
"Their long-term sights are still set on Baghdad," he said.