Pentagon delivers grim Iraq report

Congress is warned of `mutually reinforcing cycles of sectarian strife'

September 02, 2006|By David Wood | David Wood,Sun reporter

WASHINGTON -- In a sobering new assessment of Iraq, senior Pentagon officials sketched out a bloody landscape yesterday of sectarian violence spreading beyond Baghdad and execution-style assassinations and terrorist bombings by increasingly entrenched private militias and death squads.

"This is probably the most complex combat environment we have seen since the war began," said Rear Adm. William Sullivan, the top strategic planner for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The severity and breadth of the Defense Department report, which is required four times a year by Congress, appeared to undercut recent statements by President Bush and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld that conditions in Iraq are difficult but that steady progress is being made and that, as Rumsfeld put it Tuesday, "The question isn't whether we can win. It's whether we have the will to persevere to win."

"This is a report that provides a good deal more realism" than recent administration statements, said Anthony Cordesman, senior analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "In truth, it's not a matter of American will that determines whether we win or lose in Iraq, but Iraqi governance, and the most we can do is to support and encourage that effort."

The Bush administration sought to play down the report's most discouraging elements. A White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the report deals only with the period ending Aug. 7, so it doesn't take into account a "significant decrease in executions and sectarian incidents" in Baghdad since then.

Bush continues to believe that the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has the right strategy in place to combat the violence and is ready to make whatever adjustments are necessary to adapt to the situation, the official said.

"Results cannot be expected overnight, but new tactics on the ground are already having an impact," the official said.

Nevertheless, the grim thrust of the report underscores that even with the establishment of an elected Iraqi government under a new constitution, chaos and bloodshed have only increased, driving growing numbers of families from their homes and jobs.

In the period covered by the assessment, roughly mid-May through mid-August, the number of weekly attacks on civilians rose 15 percent over the previous three-month period, while Iraqi casualties shot up 51 percent.

"Sunni and Shi'a [Shiite] extremists, particularly al Qaeda-in-Iraq and rogue elements of Jaysh al Mahdi [the militant organization of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr] are increasingly locked in retaliatory violence and are contesting control of ethnically mixed areas to expand their existing areas of influence," the report said.

"Death squads and terrorists are locked in mutually reinforcing cycles of sectarian strife," it stated, creating "increasing numbers of internally displaced persons," or refugees.

In predominantly Shiite neighborhoods of east Baghdad yesterday, a series of attacks with car bombs, mortars and rockets killed at least 64 people and wounded more than 286, the Associated Press reported.

Bush and others argue that the bloody conflict is concentrated in Baghdad, where U.S. troops and Iraqi security forces are making a major push to quell the violence. But the Pentagon assessment says that sectarian blood-letting "is gradually spreading north into Diyala Province and Kirkuk as Sunni, Shi'a and Kurdish groups compete for provincial influence."

Concern about civil war "has increased in recent months" among civilians, the report said.

The strategy for prevailing over the rising violence and worsening conditions in Iraq, as explained this week by Bush and other administration officials, is for the 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq to train and fight alongside Iraqi security forces while the central government of al-Maliki gathers control of the fractious nation.

The United States depends on al-Maliki to oversee a series of difficult political compromises in the national legislature, principally on sharing oil revenues. And only the Iraqi government, officials said, can implement critical security measures.

In a little-noticed part of his speech to the American Legion on Thursday, Bush seemed to issue a warning to the Iraqi government,

"America is a patient nation, and Iraq can count on our partnership, as long as the new government continues to make the hard decisions necessary to advance a unified, democratic and peaceful Iraq," Bush said.

U.S. officials are relying on al-Maliki to get the private militias disarmed and off the streets, a politically tricky business, given that government ministries and the legislature are threaded with powerful politicians connected with sectarian organizations such as Jaysh al Mahdi, which often have armed militant wings.

But the United States will not undertake the potentially dangerous job of dismantling the militias, Pentagon officials said.

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