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Originally published Thursday, March 19, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

"The Gamble": Iraq war is a long way from over

"The Gamble," author Thomas E. Rick's new book about American military strategy in Iraq, warns that despite the administration's promises of massive troop withdrawal, the U.S. may be only halfway through the war. Ricks discusses his book April 9 at the Seattle Public Library.

Bloomberg News

Author appearance

Thomas E. Ricks

The author of "The Gamble" will discuss his book at 7 p.m. April 9 at the main branch of the Seattle Public Library. Free (206-386-4636 or www.spl.org).

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"The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008"

by Thomas E. Ricks

Penguin Press, 394 pp., $27.95

Here's a scary thought: "The events for which the Iraq war will be remembered probably have not yet happened."

That's what Thomas E. Ricks says in his new book, "The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008."

Ricks is a special military correspondent for The Washington Post and author of the 2006 best-seller "Fiasco," and he seems to have spoken to everyone with any relation to the war.

"The Gamble" focuses on the surge of 30,000 troops that flooded the military zone between January 2007 and July 2008, improving the security of average Iraqis while hoping to buy time for a largely dysfunctional government to reconcile violent sectarian differences.

But it is Ricks' look forward that gives this book its tremendous value. "It appears that today we may be only halfway through" the war, Ricks says, despite a new agreement with Iraq calling for the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops by December 2011, and a new administration that wants out sooner.

The top combat commander in Iraq gave Ricks what appears to be the only on-the-record estimate of what even President Obama — who favors a near-total pullout in 16 months — acknowledges will probably be a "residual force" in Iraq.

"I would like to see a ... force probably around 30,000 or so, 35,000," Gen. Raymond Odierno said in November, when asked to speculate about how many troops would remain in Iraq by 2014 or 2015. (The U.S. has about 146,000 troops in Iraq today.) Those troops would be training Iraqi forces and conducting combat operations against al-Qaida in Iraq and its allies, according to Ricks.

No matter the size, Ricks says, "a smaller but long-term U.S. military presence is probably the best case scenario."

"There is also the alarming possibility that, years after a pullout, the U.S. military eventually would have to return to fight another war or impose peace on chaos," he writes.

Ricks also throws out this little bombshell without any elaboration:

"The wild card in all this is Israel." If it chooses to attack Iran's nuclear facilities, "the U.S. effort in Iraq would be knocked badly off course, with the possibility again of the nightmare of 2004 — twin Sunni and Shiite uprisings against the U.S. presence."

What do his military sources tell him about this possibility? We never learn. It would have been better to hear more about this and less about the Bush administration's last gasp in Iraq.

The story of the surge focuses on U.S. Army Gen. Petraeus, the lean, uber-focused soldier-scholar who reshaped Army strategy from search-and-destroy operations launched out of massive forward operating bases to a more focused force employing classic counter-insurgency tactics geared toward protecting the Iraqi people and living with them.

Ricks relies on a deep variety of on-the-record people — captains walking the beat in Baghdad, intelligence specialists, generals, ex-generals, a bow-tied academic and even a Washington restaurant owner who didn't want to seat just-fired Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, calling him a "war criminal."

Most important, Ricks was granted extensive access to Petraeus, his planners and everyone in the military associated with the campaign.

What Ricks didn't have was the White House access given colleague Bob Woodward for his 2008 "The War Within," which chronicled how the surge unfolded from the executive branch perspective.

Ricks briefly acknowledges the earlier work, calling it "thorough but White House-centric." The verdict of "The Gamble"? Ricks concludes that the surge's outcome is at best "incomplete," largely because in his view the Iraqi government didn't adequately seize the opportunity for political reconciliation paid for during the surge with 1,124 U.S. dead, 7,710 wounded and 24,000 Iraqi soldiers, police and civilians killed.

"I don't think the Iraq war is over, and I worry that there is more to come than any of us suspect," Ricks writes.

Tony Capaccio is a Pentagon reporter for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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