Top U.S. Of­fi­cers See Mixed Re­sults From Iraq ‘Surge’

Sec­tar­ian Killings De­crease in Cap­i­tal; Sui­cide Bomb­ings Across Coun­try Rise

The Washington Post Sunday - - Front Page - By Ann Scott Tyson

BAGH­DAD, April 21 — Gen. David H. Pe­traeus, the top U.S. com­man­der in Iraq, said the on­go­ing in­crease of nearly 30,000 U.S. troops in the coun­try 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 will ul­ti­mately suc­ceed.

As­sess­ing the first two months of the U.S. and Iraqi plan to pacify the cap­i­tal, se­nior Amer­i­can com­man­ders — in­clud­ing Pe­traeus; Adm. William J. Fal­lon, head of U.S. forces in the Mid­dle East; Lt. Gen. Ray­mond T. 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 prov- ince, 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 com­man­ders search for signs of suc­cess. On Fri­day night at dusk, Pe­traeus boarded a he­li­copter to look for scenes of nor­malcy and progress from above the mael­strom of the cap­i­tal.

“On a bad day, I ac­tu­ally fly Bagh­dad just to re­as­sure my­self that life still goes on,” he said, lean­ing back and prop­ping his legs on the seat in front of him.

The air­craft banked right and Pe­traeus caught sight of a patch of rel­a­tive calm. “He’s ac­tu­ally wa­ter­ing the grass!” Pe­traeus said with a laugh, peer­ing down at a man tend­ing a soc­cer field, with chil­dren play­ing nearby.

Sec­onds later, the air­craft piv­oted again, ex­pos­ing boarded-up shops on a de­serted, trash-strewn street. A bit farther, along the Tigris River, a hulk­ing pile of twisted steel came into view — the re­mains of the Sarafiya bridge, blown up April 12 amid a se­ries of spec­tac­u­lar and deadly sui­cide bomb­ings.

“That’s a set­back,” Pe­traeus said, his voice lower. “That breaks your heart.”

And so it went, all across the city. Di­rect­ing the pilot to “break left” or “roll out,” he scanned the land­scape for even tiny im­prove­ments — a pile of picked-up trash, an Iraqi po­lice car out on pa­trol, a short line at one gas sta­tion — as if gath­er­ing men­tal am­mu­ni­tion for the next wave of Bagh­dad car­nage. An amuse­ment park, its rides lit up, mer­ited a full cir­cle.

“We have cer­tainly pulled neigh­bor­hoods back from the brink,” Pe­traeus said, com­par­ing the signs of re­vi­tal­iza­tion now to his ini­tial shock at the stark de­te­ri­o­ra­tion of parts of the cap­i­tal upon his ar­rival in Fe­bru­ary.

So far, 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. An­other part of the strat­egy is to wall off com­mu­ni­ties along their tra­di­tional bound­aries to con­trol pop­u­la­tion ac­cess and pre­vent at­tacks.

“That’s part of the con­crete cater­pil­lar,” Pe­traeus said, point­ing out a bar­rier go­ing up in a neigh­bor­hood in west Bagh­dad. “That mar­ket was shut com­pletely down when I took com­mand — now it has 200 shops,” he said.

The walls helped di­vert the mul­ti­ple car bombs in Bagh­dad on Wed­nes­day that killed more than 170 peo­ple. Three ex­ploded short of their tar­gets, but the fourth and dead­li­est ve­hi­cle bomber was able to en­ter a mar­ket be­cause some­one had re­moved part of the bar­rier to gain eas­ier ac­cess, U.S. of­fi­cials said.

U.S. com­man­ders say sec­tar­ian mur­ders fell from 1,200 in Bagh­dad in Jan­uary to fewer than 400 in March. Mar­kets are re­open­ing, and a few thou­sand fam­i­lies have trick­led back to ar­eas they had fled.

But they agreed that among the most trou­bling trends in Iraq has been the pro­lif­er­a­tion of sui­cide bomb at­tacks, 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.

“When you have th­ese big ex­plo­sions, there is a very high risk of a ma­jor set­back be­cause it sends a mes­sage of in­sta­bil­ity and in­se­cu­rity,” said Fal­lon, head of U.S. Cen­tral Com­mand.

It is vir­tu­ally im­pos­si­ble to elim­i­nate the sui­cide bomb­ings, the com­man­ders ac­knowl­edged. “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. “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. This is strug­gle for them,” Fal­lon said.

As the Ma­liki gov­ern­ment moves slowly, and pa­tience in the United States wears thin, com­man­ders worry that 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.

U.S. com­man­ders said that at least so far, the bomb­ings of Shi­ite neigh­bor­hoods in Bagh­dad have not in­cited Shi­ite mili­tias to launch a new wave of re­venge killings. Shi­ite mili­tias, more­over, in­clud­ing the pow­er­ful Mahdi Army of Shi­ite cleric Mo­q­tada al-Sadr, have not staged ma­jor re­sis­tance to U.S. and Iraqi forces. Still, they ac­knowl­edge that Sadr’s in­ten­tions re­main un­clear.

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.

At the joint com­mand head­quar­ters for the Bagh­dad op­er­a­tion, Iraqi com­man­der Lt. Gen. Abud Qan­bar Hashim met Satur­day with Fal­lon and Odierno and dis­cussed which parts of Bagh­dad needed more troops. “I am very op­ti­mistic. I think we will suc­ceed” with the ad­di­tional forces, Hashim told Fal­lon.

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.

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 Gas- kin, U.S. com­man­der in An­bar.

Fly­ing over Bagh­dad as the lights of the city came on, Pe­traeus passed by the city’s south­ern flank, where he led the 101st Air­borne Di­vi­sion in the in­va­sion of Iraq in 2003. In an ear­lier in­ter­view, he had said he feels a sense of obli­ga­tion to help Iraqi peo­ple, be­cause “Gen­eral [Colin] Pow­ell was right, it is Pot­tery [Barn] rules.” But on this, his third tour in Iraq, Pe­traeus re­turned to a so­ci­ety that is “more fear­ful, more sus­pi­cious, more wor­ried” and there­fore more dif­fi­cult to help.

“I wouldn’t be hon­est if I didn’t say that this has an ef­fect on all of us,” he said. “And so ev­ery now and then we just get on the he­li­copter. . . . You go see some projects that you know have been built. . . . You see some po­lice sta­tions and you see peo­ple just sort of driv­ing on, peo­ple get­ting on with their lives, and it sort of re­as­sures you. ‘Hey, th­ese peo­ple are sur­vivors.’ ”


“On a bad day, I ac­tu­ally fly Bagh­dad just to re­as­sure my­self that life still goes on,” says Gen. David H. Pe­traeus, the top U.S. com­man­der in Iraq, on a he­li­copter.

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