Shiite cleric now seen as the gravest Iraq threat

Al-Sadr trumps Sunnis, al-Qaida in defense study

December 19, 2006|By Julian E. Barnes | Julian E. Barnes,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- Armed militiamen affiliated with radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr now pose the gravest danger to the security of Iraq, surpassing Sunni extremists and even al-Qaida as the greatest obstacle to stability, according to a Defense Department report to Congress.

The finding represented the military's clearest definition yet of the danger posed by al-Sadr and was among the conclusions of a quarterly report to Congress that chronicles the instability in Iraq and the unrelenting rise in sectarian violence to new levels.

According to the Pentagon assessment, in the past three months the number of attacks increased 22 percent and the number of U.S. and coalition troops killed or wounded has increased 32 percent.

As attacks have risen, the confidence of the Iraqi people has fallen, with fewer saying in surveys that they believe their government can protect them and more agreeing that "civil war" is likely.

The conclusion that al-Sadr-related militiamen pose the chief threat to the country's security comes after the U.S. military has complained for months that the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has not proved able to address armed Shiite groups and has obstructed American efforts to confront al-Sadr. It also casts new light on a deteriorating situation in Iraq that President Bush continues to blame in large part on al-Qaida.

The dour Pentagon report came hours after Robert M. Gates was sworn in as the 22nd secretary of defense at the Pentagon, with a pledge to extract frank assessments from military leaders and deliver plain advice to the president.

"You have asked for my candor and my honest counsel at this critical moment in our nation's history, and you will get both," Gates said.

An introduction to the Pentagon's quarterly Iraq report to Congress praised the Iraqi government for taking greater responsibility for the country. But the assessment also reflects thinly veiled frustration over the inability of the government to improve the economic situation or bring sectarian factions together in an effective reconciliation program.

"The failure of the government to implement concrete actions in these areas has contributed to a situation in which, as of October 2006, there were more Iraqis who expressed a lack of confidence in their government's ability to improve the situation than there were in July 2006," the report said.

The report said the government has nearly reached its original goal of training 325,000 security forces, but that 45,000 police and army troops have been killed, wounded or have quit.

It also noted that a third of the active force is on leave at any one time, many with permission. More disturbing, the rates of AWOL Iraqi soldiers spike to more than 50 percent when Iraqi units are deployed outside their areas of operation.

The Iraqi government has been unable to fulfill its promises to move extra battalions of its army to Baghdad, and American commanders in the capital have cited the lack of forces as one reason death squads operated by warring sects have been unchecked.

The failure of a growing number of Iraqi security forces to contain the violence suggests that, in the short term, the U.S. strategy of replacing American forces with Iraqi security forces has not worked.

U.S. commanders say the Iraqi security forces have improved - particularly in their leadership - but that the violence they are trying to combat has grown much worse.

"The violence has escalated at an unbelievably rapid pace," said Marine Lt. Gen. John F. Sattler, the director for strategic plans and policy for the Joint Staff. "We have to get ahead of the violence cycle, and break that continuous chain of sectarian violence. That is the premiere challenge facing us."

From August until November, there were an average of 959 overall attacks per week - including an average of 648 against U.S. and coalition forces - up from 784 attacks overall between May and August.

"We know what we have to do," Peter Rodman, the assistant secretary of Defense for international security, said in a briefing with reporters. "We and the Iraq government have to contain sectarian violence and bolster the institutions of national unity."

At the ceremony for Gates, Bush spoke of the danger of extremists and radicals in Iraq, although he did not mention al-Qaida, as he did last week in discussing Iraq violence with British Prime Minister Tony Blair. But the Pentagon report makes it plain that sectarian violence is the greatest challenge both to American forces and the government.

Although there are many armed groups, the report says the most powerful is known as Jaysh al-Mahdi, or Mahdi army, a militia group nominally loyal to al-Sadr.

"The group that is currently having the greatest negative effect on the security situation in Iraq is Jaysh al-Mahdi (JAM), which has replaced al-Qaida as the most dangerous accelerant of potentially self-sustaining sectarian violence in Iraq," the report says.

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