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    Middle East
     May 19, 2007
Iraq 'surge' strategy shows weaknesses
By Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON - More than three months into the implementation of President George W Bush's "surge" strategy, skepticism over the likelihood of its success is still running high in Washington.

Except among neo-conservatives, who have been the strategy's most enthusiastic champions, most analysts believe it is doomed to failure in the absence of major moves - of which there have so far been virtually none - by the Shi'ite-led government of Iraqi

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to promote national reconciliation with the Sunni minority.

But even while the addition of thousands of US troops in Baghdad has reduced sectarian killings there - a major goal of the surge - violence outside the capital appears to have increased.

Indeed, according to a draft report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) obtained this week by the New York Times, the number of attacks on civilian and security forces across Iraq remained at roughly the same level in March and April as at the end of last year, before the surge got under way in February.

The actual death toll from those attacks, a growing proportion of which consists of car and truck bombings in civilian areas, may actually have risen compared with previous months, according to some analysts who note that the Maliki government last month stopped releasing casualty figures. At the same time, US casualties, a particularly sensitive indicator in Washington, have clearly been on the rise.

In accordance with classic counter-insurgency doctrine, more soldiers are aggressively patrolling areas from dispersed outposts, rather than hunkering down inside fortified bases. But the "surge" has also meant more targets for both Sunni insurgents and Shi'ite militias - a challenge that was illustrated dramatically late last month when suicide attackers overran an outpost in Baqubah, killing nine US troops, and again last Saturday, when four soldiers were killed and three others apparently captured in an al-Qaeda ambush south of Baghdad.

Moreover, the fact that some commanders, including Lieutenant-General Raymond Odierno, who runs day-to-day operations in Iraq, are already calling for the surge to continue through at least next spring is seen as an implicit admission that what progress has been achieved has come more slowly than expected.

As presented by the administration, the "surge", which added some 30,000 troops to the 135,000 already deployed to Iraq when Bush announced the plan on January 10, was designed to pacify Baghdad and regain some degree of control over predominantly Sunni al-Anbar province, a stronghold of the insurgency, especially al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia. The surge, which began in early February, is expected to reach its full complement by the end of June.

By curbing sectarian violence in the capital and going on the offensive against al-Qaeda in Anbar, the surge's authors had hoped to arrest Iraq's drift into full-scale civil war and thus provide the security and political space needed for "moderate" forces on all sides to forge a consensus on key issues, such as the powers of local governments, reversing de-Ba'athification, the distribution of oil revenues, and the disbanding of sectarian militias.

The current US commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, has always stressed that the strategy can only succeed if these issues are successfully addressed by Iraqis themselves.

But despite persistent pressure from Petraeus, the new US ambassador in Baghdad, Ryan Crocker, and a series of visits by top-level administration officials, including Vice President Dick Cheney, who made a surprise trip to Baghdad late last week, Maliki's government has been largely unresponsive, while the Iraqi Parliament has been depicted in Washington as increasingly dysfunctional.

"We just don't see what we need to see in terms of serious negotiations among the principal parties," one Bush administration official who has traveled frequently to Iraq said this week. "Distrust has not diminished; if anything, it has gotten worse."

Besides the reduction of killings in Baghdad, which most analysts attribute to Muqtada al-Sadr's orders in January to his Mehdi Army to lie low and avoid confrontations with US forces, the surge's defenders point to Anbar as the brightest spot in the strategy's implementation to date.

Not only have government- and US-backed forces regained control of Ramadi from al-Qaeda and its local allies, but a new alliance called the Jihad and Reform Front (RJF) with deep roots throughout the province has mobilized against al-Qaeda in effect splitting the insurgency.

As encouraging as these developments appear to be, some experts caution against optimism or depicting them, as some neo-conservative analysts have, as a consequence of the surge. According to Marc Lynch, a specialist at George Washington University who publishes the influential AbuAardvark.com blog, the RJF's opposition to al-Qaeda does not translate into support for US forces, and even less so for the Maliki government.

Rather, it remains at heart a nationalist movement committed both to expelling US forces and fighting Shi'ite domination, which it depicts as an "Iranian" occupation.

"The most important implication of the Sunni turn against al-Qaeda is not that the 'surge' is working, or that the insurgency is losing steam," Lynch wrote last month in The American Prospect, although he added that it may be more possible to enter into negotiations with the nationalist Sunni movement provided that Washington sets a firm commitment for withdrawing its forces.

While the Sunni split in Anbar may nonetheless be seen as an advance, events elsewhere are not nearly as positive. Growing intra-Shi'ite violence in southern Iraq is a source of increasing concern, and the commander in Diyala province, where hundreds of reinforcements were sent in the face of rising sectarian conflict two months ago, appealed for yet more troops late last week.

And while killings in Baghdad itself may be down compared with late last year, they have been steadily creeping upward over the last two months, according to published reports. Even the super-protected "Green Zone" - the nerve center of US operations and the Iraqi government - has become increasingly insecure.

Two people were killed and 10 more wounded by mortar fire into the Green Zone on Thursday, the second day in a row that it had come under fire. So dangerous has the area become that the US Embassy warned all residents this month to keep outdoor travel to a minimum and "remain within a hardened structure to the maximum extent possible and strictly avoid congregating outdoors". Those who work outdoors were ordered to wear bulletproof vests and helmets at all times.

"In any other embassy, we would have been evacuated," one State Department staffer told McClatchy Newspapers this week. "They are going to wait until 20 people die, then the people back in Washington will say we have a problem."

(Inter Press Service)

Iraq violence resurges amid 'surge' (Apr 7, '07)

How the US Army's being worn down in Iraq (Feb 7, '07)


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