Can a city awash in guns, grenades and explosives ever be safe?

BAGHDAD, Iraq — A sedan crawled through the choked, noisy streets of Baghdad and approached one of the city's ubiquitous vehicle checkpoints, no different from thousands of other cars — except for the plastic explosives hidden in its body.

This driver, however, was hoping that his lethal cargo would be found. Dressed as an ordinary civilian, he wasn't a suicide bomber, but an employee of Iraq's Interior Ministry who'd been sent out with the explosives — but no detonator — to test the city's defenses.

"I gave strict orders to soldiers to not let any car pass without being searched . . . because our commander has a faux car bomb, and if it passes through a checkpoint, officers and soldiers will be detained," said an Iraqi army major who asked not to be named because he wasn't authorized to discuss the issue. "Two checkpoint members were imprisoned in the last two months because of the faux car bomb."

Faux car bombs are just one of the efforts that the Iraqi government, with U.S. help, is making to protect Baghdad, a city of roughly 6 million. There are nearly 1,500 fixed and mobile checkpoints; blast walls; controversial hand-held explosive detectors; and armed security personnel on virtually every corner.

The efforts, however, aren't working, at least not well enough, and stopping every attack in a country that's awash in guns, grenades and explosives is next to impossible.

Multiple car bombings in August, October and December killed a total of 383 people, wounded more than 1,500 and crippled Iraqi government ministries. They've exposed the weaknesses of U.S.-backed Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki's Shiite Muslim-dominated government just as U.S. combat troops are preparing to withdraw and Iraq is preparing for an early March presidential election.

Although the level of mayhem dropped markedly in 2009, despite the end of U.S. military patrols on Iraqi city streets after June 30, insurgents, thought to be radical Sunni Muslims affiliated with al Qaida in Iraq, although apparently weakened, are using a devastating new tactic.

Rather than trying to ignite a Sunni-Shiite sectarian war, U.S. and Iraqi analysts said, they're aiming to discredit Maliki's government with mass-casualty bombings that also limit the government's ability to function.

"The terrorists started to plan more 'quality' operations," said Maj. Gen. Jihad al Jabiri, the head of the Interior Ministry division charged with detecting and defusing bombs. "Their aim is that the people will lose faith in the security forces."

Most of all, though, Iraq's efforts to ensure its own security are hobbled by politics, according to independent analysts and U.S. officials.

Maliki and his ministers, particularly Interior Minister Jawad Bolani, who'd like Maliki's job, have competing political agendas. There are at least five intelligence agencies, loyal to different leaders. Checkpoints are sometimes run by the army, sometimes by various police forces. Agencies hoard information rather than share it, a phenomenon that's not unknown in the U.S.

Before the most recent big bombings, on Dec. 8, Iraq's security ministries got a tip-off that a plot was underway, although not precise details. It's unclear how widely that information was shared.

Maliki replaced the head of the Defense Ministry's Baghdad Operations command, which is responsible for the capital's security, after the Dec. 8 bombings. Still, Jabiri called reports of debilitating rivalries between the heads of the security forces "rumors" stirred by the political campaign season that's getting underway. He said his division, which employs 2,640 people across Iraq, responds to far fewer incidents than it did just two years ago.

Maliki "is in a tough position — unable to fire any cabinet ministers, few with loyalty to him, and some of the most important, like Bolani, spending most of his time the past two years building a political party," said Brett McGurk, who's worked on Iraq for Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush.

"The security services are growing more professional each month," said McGurk. "The missing piece is an effective government, with ministers accountable to the prime minister, and that may come" after the elections.

Army Maj. Gen. Richard Rowe, who oversees the U.S. military's training of Iraq's police, said the police forces have improved markedly in recent months. In 2007, a congressionally mandated study found that the Interior Ministry, which oversees the police, was dysfunctional and rife with corruption, and the police vulnerable to infiltration by insurgents.

Rowe said there were steady improvements in Iraqi's response to bombings in August, October and December. On Dec. 8, Iraqi security forces allowed U.S. forces rapid access to the bombing sites, and security personnel at two of them may have tried to stop the bomb-bearing vehicles, possibly lessening the carnage.

"There still are shortfalls in the training, in the leader(ship) ability, specialized skill areas," he said in a telephone interview.

The Iraqis, he said, have "minimal" ability to exploit crime scene evidence and gather the intelligence needed "to break and defeat the (terrorist) network."

A visit to Jabiri's office one recent Friday, the start of the Muslim weekend, provided stark reminders of the threat that Iraqis still face.

In a small room down the hall was a chilling armory. There were bombs of every sort: explosives in books and flashlights; hand grenades; a suicide vest; rocket-propelled grenades; a brick-sized "sticky bomb" meant to be placed under a car chassis. All of them were real, but defused and used for training purposes.

Jabiri is a vocal supporter of a wand-like hand-held explosive detection device that's a common sight at Baghdad checkpoints. Rowe and other U.S. officials say it's unreliable and a poor substitute for a sharp-eyed police officer and good intelligence.

Both sides agree that there should be fewer, better-constructed checkpoints, and more emphasis on police and intelligence work rather than military-style fortifications. However, American troops are providing Iraq less real-time intelligence, because they no longer regularly patrol the streets of Iraqi cities.

Anthony Cordesman, a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said that Iraqi politics, more than security measures, would determine Baghdad's safety.

"There will always be vulnerable areas, a well-prepared attack can always find a weakness in a security system or someone to infiltrate or bribe over time," he said. "At a given point, the key becomes popular support for the security effort, and the denial of the ability to hide among the people because of political accommodation, not just security measures."

(Dulaimy is a McClatchy special correspondent.)


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