Surge of optimism recedes
BAGHDAD — Hassan Shimari rarely goes out without his 4-year-old son, not out of fatherly devotion but because he knows there is less chance of being abducted and killed by militiamen if he has the little boy in tow.
Two months ago, even as a Sunni man living in a mainly Shiite district of Baghdad, Shimari had no such fears. In an interview in mid-April, he praised the U.S.-led military "surge" launched in February and said that for the first time in months, he felt safe.
Shimari's change of heart, based on the reappearance of roaming Shiite militiamen and corpses on the streets of his Shaab district, is a small but noteworthy sign of the security plan's failure. "You never know when they are going to take someone and put them in the trunk of the car," Shimari said of the militias. "The killings, it seems, have returned."
The U.S. military says it will be months before the plan's effect is felt. Publicly, it remains optimistic. But some military analysts, soldiers and civilian advisors say the number of U.S. troops and qualified Iraqi forces won't be enough to pacify Iraq for many years. And with Iraq's political, sectarian and economic woes, that makes this a no-win mission unless drastic tactical changes are made, they argue.
One solution being proposed by advisors to those running the war is finding a way to convince all parties, from insurgents to stubborn politicians, that they have more to gain by cooperating with U.S. forces and one another than by fighting.
New tactics proposed
Stephen D. Biddle, a counterinsurgency expert at the Council on Foreign Relations who has advised the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David H. Petraeus, and other military leaders, advocates negotiating bilateral cease-fires with different groups and trading weapons, money, equipment and other forms of support for cooperation.
It is the only solution, said Biddle, who was in Iraq in March and April in his advisory role.
Hoping for a political solution to take hold as violence subsides, as the surge strategy intended, is futile given the distrust among the different groups, who fear annihilation if they forfeit any power, said Biddle and Phebe Marr, an Iraq expert who served as an advisor to the Iraq Study Group, the panel composed of former U.S. officials.
"This is a struggle for power," Marr said. All of Iraq's polarized groups need to believe they have a future in the country, she said. "That requires accommodation of some sort in which some insurgents at least have a stake in the system and are accommodated enough to say it's not worth fighting anymore."
The bombing last week of the Golden Mosque in Samarra, the second attack on the Shiite shrine in 16 months, underscored the determination of the insurgency. The latest blast was the most spectacular sign of the surge's limitations in quelling sectarian violence, but it was not the only one.
Execution-style killings, which plummeted after the security plan was launched, are creeping back toward pre-surge levels, according to Iraqi police who each night tally the number of corpses found across Baghdad. March's total was 542, April's was 440, and May's was 743. The toll in January, the month before the surge kicked off, was 830.
The Pentagon, in a report issued last week, said the monthly rate of suicide bombings was nearly double that in January, when the military reported 26. And while civilian casualties have dropped in the capital, where most extra soldiers are deployed, they have increased nationwide, the report said.
Politically, none of the legislative benchmarks that the White House considers essential for reconciliation has been met. The one considered most attainable, passage of a law to open Iraq's oilfields to outside investors and to share the nation's oil wealth equitably among its provinces, has yet to be considered by parliament. Economically, the biggest goal — reviving the oil industry — remains stalled because of the delayed bill.
There are signs of progress. The number of weapons caches seized has more than doubled, and efforts are underway to revive two of the capital's hallmarks of social and economic life: the riverside restaurants and shops along Abu Nawas street, and the historic Mutanabi book market. To the west, violence has dropped dramatically in Al Anbar province, once one of Iraq's deadliest regions, because Sunni tribal sheiks have turned on Al Qaeda and are cooperating with U.S. forces.
A grim picture
In much of Iraq, though, the picture is grim, and analysts say optimism in the early days of the security plan was misplaced and based upon a decline in killings that had no bearing on the operation's long-term success.
"Even if violence goes down, so what?" said Marr, the Iraq expert. "The real issue here is Iraqis have to move toward some kind of accommodation that will get them to permanently reduce violence, not temporarily."
Biddle said the temporary drop in civilian deaths was not a direct result of the military plan. Instead, he noted, the radical Shiite leader Muqtada Sadr reined in his militia, which had been widely blamed for the deaths, in a show of cooperation with the Shiite-led government.
"We got a gift of a few months of free breathing space, but this issue confronted us when the surge started, and now it confronts us still," Biddle said, referring to the resurgence in death squad killings.
U.S. officials have cited the decline in bloodshed in Baghdad and Al Anbar, where the extra troops are concentrated, as powerful evidence of progress. Biddle, however, said it was normal that violence would decline in pockets where there were additional forces. "The problem is where you don't have the surge," he said. "It's the rest of the country that is the issue, and the rest of the country is the majority of the country."
Even in the capital, there is frustration with the security plan's setbacks among U.S. troops as well as Iraqis.
"I just know it's not much different than it was seven months ago. We aren't holding ground," said one junior U.S. Army officer in east Baghdad, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear he could lose his job for contradicting senior officers' assessments.
Near the Shiite district of Sadr City in Baghdad, Army Capt. Joseph Rosen's attempts to jump-start economic recovery are being strangled by Shiite militias. "They do not allow our contractors into their area," Rosen said. The militias want the jobs to go to their men, but Americans don't want to hire them. Others who took jobs on the U.S. base quit after they were threatened by the fighters.
In Dora, a majority Sunni area in south Baghdad, soldiers believe Al Qaeda-linked insurgents are trying to establish the neighborhood as their headquarters in the capital. They said insurgents who were pushed out of Al Anbar appeared to have moved into the area. There have been three weeklong clearing operations since August, the latest beginning May 25. Each time, additional units were brought in to search homes, seize weapons and detain suspects. As soon as they left, the militants returned.
The surge appears to be having an effect in some of the northern sections of Dora, where children kick soccer balls and ride bicycles through quiet, leafy streets during the daylight hours. But by 6 p.m., residents said, they are locked in their homes.
"The amount of [enemy] contact that we see, it is just not the same Dora as when we came in," said Capt. Ben Jones, the commander of Alpha Company, 2nd Brigade, 12th Infantry Regiment. "We go into the mahallas [neighborhoods], within an hour we are getting shot at."
The military has said an increase in casualties should be expected as the surge brings troops deeper into residential neighborhoods, a key element of Petraeus' counterinsurgency campaign. As the last of the 28,500 additional U.S. troops arrived in Iraq, it also put out reminders that there would be ups and downs as the forces settled into place.
Patience wears thin
But that is of no comfort to Iraqis, who for months have been urged to remain patient. As their frustration with the continued violence increases, it will make it more difficult for Petraeus to build cooperation between civilians and security forces.
"My family and I were hoping that I could go out and find a job … but sadly this was not the case," said Rana Fadhil, 25, a homemaker in north Baghdad, who cited bombings, sectarian killings and the difficulty of getting from one place to another because of checkpoints. "We all thought that we could live a relatively ordinary and respectable life."
At his grocery store in the relatively safe enclave of Karada, a shopkeeper who would give his name only as Maithan waved his small cellphone.
"We used to have land lines that worked!" he said, expressing commonly heard frustrations over the country's fractured infrastructure. He filled a plastic bottle with water from the municipal tap to show the cloudy liquid.
Shimari, whose wife is Shiite, said his attitude toward the surge began to change after he started spotting bodies in the streets while driving his taxi. He has counted five recently. "Let me tell you, the militias have become more active," he said. "It is as if they received instructions to go for it."
Biddle said if the military can replicate its success in Al Anbar, the security plan has a chance of success, but he calls it a longshot. Marr said she was "not optimistic."
Petraeus is expected to issue a formal evaluation of the surge in September.
Whatever method is pursued, critics and soldiers alike agree it will take far longer to know the outcome than Congress and most Americans are willing to wait.
"We are on the ground and we see it isn't going to take one year or two years — it will take longer," said Staff Sgt. Nestor Lozado, a member of the 2nd Battalion, 17th Field Artillery in south Baghdad's Zafaraniya neighborhood. "But in our area, I believe it can happen."
"Some say it is unreasonable to not know if this plan will work until some time in 2008," said Sgt. Charles Mason, a veteran of three Iraq tours who is stationed in Zafaraniya. "But I know you won't have results by September. To have an evaluation and make it public is just making our job harder."
Times staff writers Alexandra Zavis and Julian Barnes and special correspondents in Baghdad contributed to this report.
BS Ranch Perspective
Everyone is a Cook!! With a different Recipe to solve what ever it is that they are observing in this conflict, I guess what they want is for the Solders to start handing out toys and trinkets to the Iraqis to make their life easier in this blood shed that they are allowing in their country. Most know what is going on in their own Neighborhood, just Like most Mom's know what is going on in their neighborhoods. Their Children are the best reporters of the neighborhood and that is what the newscasters need. When they get to close then they get captured and they are executed on the Television for everyone in Iraq to see. I almost think that they like that sort of television then they do the regular trash that we spew out of our television each night!!
Think about it these people love conflict, and so you have to make them understand that they don't want conflict with us. well maybe that was what makes them dig in and fight all the more I don't know. All I do know is that if we leave that it will be a true sign that we are weak and they will want to fight in our own country for a steak at a little piece of land. I say that Berkley can be given to them. After all it is their leader that wants to say that they give up!! Pelosi