Soldiers spearheading the increase in US forces in Baghdad are papering car windows and storefronts with purple stickers listing telephone numbers and an e-mail address where Iraqis can send intelligence tips to help stop the violence.
But if a recent sweep in search of car bomb makers is an indication, they have a long way to go to improve intelligence.
Soldiers from the Army's 1st Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment converged this week on a religiously mixed north Baghdad neighborhood of auto parts stores and "chop shops" that Iraqi commanders believed was used to rig deadly car bombs.
Moving door to door, Iraqi and US soldiers smashed padlocks with sledge hammers, clipped through wire gates and rifled through hundreds of buildings as Iraqi mechanics, their hands slick with grease and motor oil, peered from nearby shops.
Instead of discovering a network of clandestine car bomb factories, the soldiers instead found only a few Kalashnikov rifles, eight grenades and some wire.
"We're told this new surge is going to be more intelligence-based instead of just hitting random sites," said Staff Sergeant Jamie Slagle, 31, as he flipped through a stack of unused stickers. "But that's what seems to me to still be going on."
US officials have urged Iraqis to be patient and have cautioned that the new security operation could take months to show results. That is a hard message to swallow for Iraqis who have endured years of violence -- including a triple car-bombing on Monday that killed at least 78 people in the heart of the capital.
The US military has advertised some successes, including the discovery of 14 weapons caches during a series of raids and patrols in Baghdad during the week that ended last Friday. On Thursday, US and Iraqi troops arrested two members of a car bomb-making cell in Amiriyah, a Sunni neighborhood near the Baghdad airport, the command said.
But for the soldiers of the 23rd Regiment, the results of the new phase have been disappointing so far. Some of them fear that the delays in starting the new security operation may have given Sunni and Shiite extremists time to flee the capital or hide their weapons.
What still seemed lacking, soldiers said, was good intelligence -- and cooperation from Iraqis themselves.
"It's like a 50-50 game. Fifty percent is good intelligence and 50 percent is just plain bull," said Specialist Brett Rochon, 22. "You've got a better chance of walking around the street."
Since the collapse of former president Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003, US military officers have been courting tribal leaders, repairing schools, clearing streets and making contacts -- all with the goal of winning public support.
But transforming goodwill into useable intelligence has proven elusive. And sometimes, the insurgents have spread false information under the guise of friendly tips.
Last month, US troops launched a raid on Haifa Street in central Baghdad after receiving a tip that insurgents were in the area. As the US troops arrived, they were ambushed and one was killed.
"The first target we went to, as soon as we dismounted, they started throwing grenades at my guys like they knew we were coming," said Captain Isaac Torres, 34, a company commander.
Nevertheless, the US has little choice but to rely heavily on the Iraqis to pacify the capital.
Under the new plan, Iraqi forces will take the lead in securing city neighborhood by neighborhood -- with US units standing by in case of trouble.
Another lethal bomb rocked central Baghdad yesterday, killing 16 people as security forces battled to save the credibility of a make-or-break security plan.
A suicide bomber detonated a van packed with explosives in a crowd outside a food warehouse in the mixed west Baghdad district of Iskan, demolishing a house and wounding at least 40 bystanders, a security official told reporters.
"There were women and children among the victims, including 12 people from the same family killed or wounded when their nearby house collapsed," he said, explaining that the depot is used to distribute subsidized food rations.
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