Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Time Is The Critical Commodity In Iraq

U.S. Commanders in Iraq are seeking time through the spring of next year to keep the surge in place, even as Democrats in Congress seek to end U.S. involvement in Iraq this summer, now proposing a two month package of poison pills. As to the military, the Washington Post reports today:

. . . "The surge needs to go through the beginning of next year for sure," said Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the day-to-day commander for U.S. military operations in Iraq. The new requirement of up to 15-month tours for active-duty soldiers will allow the troop increase to last until spring, said Odierno, who favors keeping experienced forces in place for now.

"What I am trying to do is to get until April so we can decide whether to keep it going or not," he said in an interview in Baghdad last week. "Are we making progress? If we're not making any progress, we need to change our strategy. If we're making progress, then we need to make a decision on whether we continue to surge."

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said yesterday's announcement of the upcoming deployments [of 35,000 replacements] "is not a reflection on any decision with respect to the duration of the surge."

As the initial U.S. troop buildup in Baghdad nears its June completion, Odierno and other commanders offered details of how they will execute the military's new Iraq strategy, how they expect insurgents and militias to react, and political factors that will bear upon their success

. . . The main thrust of the military effort in the near term, Odierno said, is to position a critical mass of U.S. and Iraqi troops inside Baghdad to quell the violence that was spiraling out of control late last year. As currently planned, Baghdad will have 25 battalions of U.S. troops and 38 battalions of Iraqi soldiers and police when the increase is complete, he said.

The push to expand the U.S. and Iraqi presence in Baghdad's neighborhoods reflects what U.S. commanders now acknowledge was a mistaken drawdown in 2005 and 2006 of American troops in the capital, leaving Iraqi forces in their place.

. . . Another vital aspect of the strategy to secure Baghdad, commanders said, is to array more forces on the periphery of the capital to block Sunni insurgents and Shiite militiamen from using the outskirts for staging attacks.

"The Baghdad belts or support zones" have "always been the generator of violence in Baghdad," Odierno said. As a result, he plans to allocate about half of the final two incoming brigades in outlying areas.

Because Iraqi forces are concentrated inside the city, fewer are available to go to the outskirts to partner with U.S. troops, who must cover large areas, he said. In western Baghdad's Mansour district, for example, about 3,000 U.S. and Iraqi troops are covering an area with 300,000 people. "That's huge," said Lt. Col. Dale Kuehl, the U.S. commander for the area.

Still, the decision to place U.S. troops in both Baghdad and the outskirts has led to concern among some officers that their forces will be spread too thin. "If we lose Baghdad, it's game over," said one officer. "We need to concentrate forces in Baghdad and be really ruthless in accepting risk elsewhere," he said.

U.S. commanders said they expected Sunni and Shiite fighters to try to counter the Baghdad strategy in part by staging attacks in other regions.

"They will try to do whatever they can in other cities to draw us out of Baghdad" using vehicle bomb attacks, Odierno said. The Sunni extremist group al-Qaeda in Iraq, for example, might try to establish a base where there are fewer U.S. troops, such as the northern city of Mosul, he said. "We are watching that very closely."

Al-Qaeda in Iraq fighters have recently staged attacks in the predominantly Shiite southern cities of Karbala and Najaf, prompting U.S. and Iraqi officials to launch an assessment of whether the Iraqi police and army have the capability they need to protect the Shiite shrines there, as well as in Samarra and Baghdad, Odierno said.

Diyala province, a demographically mixed area between Baghdad and Iran, has already experienced an upsurge in violence following what Odierno said was in influx in recent months of Shiite militiamen from Baghdad and al-Qaeda in Iraq fighters from Anbar province, a Sunni stronghold in the west of the country. The U.S. military had to dispatch an additional battalion to Diyala, and Odierno said he is considering sending another.

In Anbar, meanwhile, violence has dropped dramatically in recent months because of the cooperation of local tribes -- a trend that could allow for a smaller U.S. presence there in the future, Odierno said. "We have less attacks in Anbar than in any other region," he said.

In Baghdad, sectarian killings have fallen dramatically since January, while suicide bombings using vehicles have increased. Overall, attack patterns varied in different parts of Baghdad. For example, in Mansour to the west, extrajudicial killings fell in February only to increase again by April, while other attacks remained on average the same. In the Rasafa district of central Baghdad, weekly attacks went from 88 in January to 25 in February but are now at about 60. . . .
Read the entire story here.

As to the poison pills of the Congress and the push to get a decisive vote to surrender and retreat from Iraq in two months, the Washington Post reports:
A House Democratic proposal introduced yesterday that would give President Bush half of the money he has requested for the war effort, with a vote in July on whether to approve the rest, hinges on progress in meeting political benchmarks that Iraq has thus far found difficult to achieve.

The House measure, which could come to a vote as early as tomorrow, would substantially raise the pressure on Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government to meet lagging commitments -- including new laws on oil revenue and de-Baathification, constitutional revisions, provincial elections and the demobilization of militias -- that Bush has said are crucial to the success of the U.S. military strategy.

The plan would make about $43 billion of the administration's requested $95.5 billion immediately available to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, train troops from both nations and pay for other military needs. Congress's approval of the rest, intended to last through September, would await Iraqi passage of restructuring laws, or Bush's ability to prove that significant progress had been made. The July vote would mark the first time a mandatory funding cutoff would come before Congress.

Most of the anticipated Iraqi changes are locked in disputes among and within regional and sectarian groups, and some have moved further from agreement in recent weeks. A deadline of next Tuesday for presenting a constitutional revision package to the Iraqi Parliament is likely to be only partially met, Bush administration officials said. A group of oil and gas laws due by the end of the month remains mired in debate.

Administration officials also acknowledge there has been no progress on a de-Baathification law that would permit former members of Saddam Hussein's ruling party -- most of them Sunnis -- greater access to government and security jobs, or toward disarming and demobilizing Shiite militias.

Delays and setbacks in promulgating the restructuring legislation, let alone passing and implementing it, was a major subject at last week's "neighbors conference" on Iraq held in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. As Iraq's Sunni Arab neighbors sharply questioned the commitment of the Maliki government, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recognized the slow progress and pleaded for patience and help: "If Iraq fails to achieve these goals of stability and democracy, we will all pay." Most of the Arabs dislike Maliki and consider him a pawn of Iran's Shiite rulers.

The administration has set September as an informal deadline for proving that the increase in U.S. troops and new security strategy are succeeding. But making the funding contingent on votes in the Iraqi parliament sets a much clearer standard for progress than the benchmark of improved security.

. . . In the meantime, "we're not willing to sit by like potted palms doing nothing," Obey told reporters yesterday. He presented the July cutoff plan to the Democratic caucus yesterday, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said it could be brought to the floor as early as tomorrow.

. . . The Senate is not expected to take the same short-term funding approach, but it is likely to make political benchmarks the centerpiece of its own legislation, with consequences if they are not met.

Administration officials, while conceding Iraqi delays, described the Democrats' proposals as dangerous, and even worse than the "redeployment" conditions in the vetoed bill. "Now we're in Excedrin headache No. 1," a State Department official said. "How do you fight a war two months at a time?"

Calling the Democrats' action a "moral hazard," the official said, "Okay, let's pass a law saying no more funding past July 31 if the [oil] package of laws doesn't pass. What do you suppose happens next? If I was sitting in a neighboring country, really looking forward to saying bye-bye to the Americans, you've just shown me a way to do it."

Strong diplomatic pressure is already being applied on the Maliki government, a senior administration official said, and mandating political reforms by a certain date would drive Iraqis further apart. "It allows extremist factions to say that these legislative benchmarks, which were an Iraqi political agenda, is an American agenda," the official said.

"If you say the next two months are make or break, I think I can predict what we'll see," the official said. "We will see a sustained trend of suicide attacks" by al-Qaeda in Iraq and other Sunni extremists, making the Shiite-led government even less willing to move on de-Baathification.

"It's a really harmful approach," the official said. "There is a risk you can push [the Iraqi government] off a cliff."

. . . Iraq's Sunni leaders agreed to the hastily written 2005 constitution, which most saw as favoring the Kurds, only on the condition that it include plans for amendments. A parliamentary committee has been working on the changes for months but is unlikely to finish by next Tuesday's deadline. On Monday, Iraq's top Sunni leader, Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, told CNN that he would pull his bloc out of the unity government if key amendments are not completed. Kurdish leaders have said they will oppose provisions that diminish their autonomy, and they have objected to proposals in the draft oil package.

"I think they will have made some headway by September," said Nicholas Haysom, who heads the political division of the United Nations Mission for Iraq. "But we would also acknowledge the possibility that the political process may end up being even more divisive" by then.

Read the sad tale here.

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