Military looking to Baghdad for Iraq solution

As the capital goes, so goes the country, U.S. officials say

Analysis

October 23, 2006|By New York Times News Service

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- After three years of trying to thwart a potent insurgency and tamp down the deadly violence in Iraq, the U.S. military is playing its last hand: the Baghdad security plan.

The plan will be tweaked, adjusted and modified in the weeks ahead, as American commanders attempt to reverse the dismaying increase in murders, drive-by shootings and bombings.

But U.S. military commanders in Iraq see no plausible alternative to their bedrock strategy of clearing violence-ridden neighborhoods of militias, insurgents and arms caches; holding them with Iraqi and American security forces; and then trying to win over the population with reconstruction projects, underwritten mainly by the Iraq government. There is no winning fallback plan that the generals are holding in their hip pocket. This is it.

The Iraqi capital, as the generals like to say, is the center of gravity for the larger American mission in Iraq. Their assessment is that if Baghdad is overwhelmed by sectarian strife, the cause of fostering a more stable Iraq will be lost. Conversely, if Baghdad can be improved, the effects will eventually be felt elsewhere in Iraq. In invading Iraq, American forces started from outside the country and fought their way in. The current strategy is essentially to work from the inside out.

"As Baghdad goes, so goes Iraq," observed Lt. Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, who commands American forces throughout Iraq.

There are many ideas - new and not so new - being discussed in Washington, including a sectarian division of Iraq (which the current government and many Iraqis oppose) and talking to Iraq's Iranian neighbor (which the Iraqi government is already doing, but the United States is not). Some of these ideas look appealing simply because they have not been put to the test.

However the broader strategy may be amended, nothing can work if Baghdad becomes a war-torn city. Baghdad security may not be a sufficient condition for a more stable Iraq, but it is a necessary condition for any plan that does not simply abandon the Iraqis to their fate. It is hard to see how any Iraq plan can work if the capital's residents cannot be protected.

The current operation is called "Together Forward II," a name that reflects the core assumption that the Iraqi government is to be an equal partner in regaining control of its capital. Necessarily, the security plan requires an integrated political and military approach, as its goal is not to vanquish an enemy on a foreign battlefield but to bring order to a militia- and insurgent-plagued city. But the early returns have raised searching questions as to whether the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is truly prepared to tackle the mission.

"It is a decisive period," said Maj. Gen. J.D. Thurman, the commander of the 4th Infantry Division and the senior commander of the American forces in Baghdad. "They either seize the opportunity, or they don't. If they don't, then our government is going to have to readjust what we are going to do, and that is not my call."

Since it will take several months to secure and begin reconstruction in the dozen or so strife-ridden neighborhoods that are the focus of the plan, American commanders said that the viability of the strategy cannot properly be assessed before the end of the year. So far, however, the plan has been short on resources as well as on results. The Iraqi Defense Ministry has supplied only two of the six Iraqi army battalions that Thurman has requested.

That is not just a question of numbers. Some American military officers believe the Iraqi army may be more effective than the Iraq police and more trusted by local citizens. Yet several Iraqi battalions have deserted rather than follow orders to go to Baghdad, according to American military officials. In the case of these units, summoning them to the Iraqi capital was tantamount to demobilizing them.

The original concept behind the plan was that American forces were to hold cleared areas for 60 to 90 days, during which the process of economic reconstruction would begin. Then the Americans would turn the sectors over to Iraqi police and Iraq army units, freeing up American troops to tackle security challenges elsewhere in the city. Without sufficient Iraqi forces, however, this process has been hampered, and it has been more difficult to prevent militias and insurgents from sneaking back into the cleared areas.

"What takes the combat power is the holding piece," said Thurman. "We can do the clearing. But once you clear, if you don't leave somebody in there and build civil capacity in there, then it is the old mudhole approach. You know - the water runs out of the mudhole when you drive through the mudhole, and then it runs back in it."

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