Top U.S. officers see mixed results from Iraq "surge"
The homicide rate has dropped, and there are other signs of improvement in the capital and Anbar. But uncertainty remains over the insurgency's resilience, Shiite death squads and the regime's resolve.
The Washington Post
BAGHDAD — Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said the ongoing increase of nearly 30,000 U.S. troops in Iraq has achieved "modest progress" but has also met with setbacks such as a rise in devastating suicide bombings and other problems that leave uncertain whether his counterinsurgency strategy ultimately will succeed.
Assessing the first two months of the U.S. and Iraqi plan to pacify the capital, senior American commanders -- including Petraeus; Adm. William Fallon, head of U.S. forces in the Middle East; Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, commander of military operations in Iraq; and top regional commanders -- see mixed results. They said that while an increase in U.S. and Iraqi troops has improved security in Baghdad and Anbar province, attacks have risen sharply elsewhere. Critical now, they said in interviews this week, is for Iraqi leaders to forge the political compromises needed for long-term stability.
The deployment of additional troops in Baghdad is only 60 percent complete, and incoming units in many parts of the city are still conducting initial, labor-intensive operations to "clear" neighborhoods before setting up patrol bases, a pillar of Petraeus's counterinsurgency plan. Iraq's security forces have contributed the nine battalions pledged for the Baghdad operations, and rotate those forces every 90 days.
The bases -- which so far include 21 combat outposts and 26 joint security stations run together with Iraqi forces -- are a key building block in the effort to increase security for Baghdad residents.
The commanders search for ways to measure their success or failure.
They say, for instance, that sectarian murders fell from 1,200 in Baghdad in January to fewer than 400 in March. Some markets are reopening, and a few thousand families have trickled back in to areas they fled.
But they agreed that among the most troubling trends in Iraq has been the proliferation of suicide bomb attacks, such as the Wednesday attacks, which all told killed more than 170 people, because they risk reigniting sectarian revenge killings and undermining the government.
Suicide bombings have increased 30 percent over the six weeks that ended in early April, according to military data.
"I don't think you're ever going to get rid of all the car bombs," Petraeus said. "Iraq is going to have to learn -- as did, say, Northern Ireland -- to live with some degree of sensational attacks." A more realistic goal, he said, but one that has eluded U.S. and Iraqi forces, is to prevent the bombers from causing "horrific damage."
Another major concern shared by U.S. military leaders is whether the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is capable of solidifying gains in security as well as making the crucial political compromises needed to achieve peace in the long term.
"Will the Iraqis generate the capacity in their security forces and in their government to sustain this over time? That's what keeps me up at night," Odierno said.
Iraqi leaders "come from narrow political backgrounds ... but now there is an expectation they will be able to make decisions well beyond the group they represent," Fallon said.
As the al-Maliki government moves slowly, and patience in the United States wears thin, Petraeus and other commanders worry that even with initial signs of progress, their window for action is rapidly closing.
"We're trying to somehow speed up the Baghdad clock and put time on the Washington clock. That's all we can do at the end of the day," Petraeus said. "The question is: Can you get to a sustainable situation before one of the clocks runs out?"
The increased presence of U.S. and Iraqi soldiers and police in the neighborhoods has helped the forces more easily track down death squads. A death-squad leader in the Shiite neighborhood of Sadr City was detained recently, yielding a wealth of intelligence on the militia and its Iranian connections, according to a U.S. military official.
U.S. commanders said that at least so far, the bombings of Shiite neighborhoods in Baghdad have not incited Shiite militia to launch a new wave of revenge killings. Shiite militia, moreover, including the powerful Mahdi Army of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, have not staged major resistance to U.S. and Iraqi forces. Still, they acknowledge al-Sadr's long-range intentions remain unclear.
Despite initial concerns, the existence of two separate command chains for Iraqi and U.S. forces has not caused major problems, the commanders said. Col. Shannon Davis, the U.S. advisory-team chief for the Iraqi command, said that initially Iraqi officers lacked good communications, and instead were "handing around Post-it notes and using cellphones." The U.S. headquarters across the hallway is fully automated and able to point out incidents that the Iraqis might miss, Davis said.
As in Baghdad, the increase of 4,000 more Marines in Anbar province has helped lower violence in what has long been a Sunni insurgent stronghold.
"The surge forces gave us the ability to go outside the population centers" to the lowlands where insurgents trained, stored weapons and took refuge, said Maj. Gen. Walter Gaskin, who commands U.S. forces in Anbar.
With the support of local tribes, Anbar recently has succeeded in recruiting about 11,500 police and 2,000 provincial sheriffs -- after years during which insurgent intimidation campaigns prevented such efforts.
"A year ago, [insurgents] brought all the police into this stadium and shot them," Fallon said on a visit Saturday to the Anbar town of Haditha, which now has a substantial local police force.
When vice president of Sub Pop Records Megan Jasper isn't running things at the office, she's working in her garden at her West Seattle home where she and her husband Brian spend time relaxing.