Thursday, June 14, 2007

Iraq, Successes of the Surge, Iranian Acts of War & Balanced Reporting From the USA Today

My hats off to the USA Today for providing us with a balanced picture of the situation in Iraq. And the news is that the surge is making signficant progress despite efforts to derail it by al Qaeda in Iraq, Iran, and Congressional Democrats. This reporting could not be more timely, coming as it is on the heels of the utterly craven performance yesterday by Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi to preemptively claim defeat and surrender, trying to capitalize on a success by terrorists in bombing of the Samarra Mosque. Their desire for surrender at all costs in order to achieve partisan political gain could not be more transparent. Nor could their message, that the surge "has failed," be further from the truth:

When Gen. David Petraeus drives through the streets of Iraq's capital, he sees "astonishing signs of normalcy" in half, perhaps two-thirds of Baghdad.

"I'm talking about professional soccer leagues with real grass field stadiums, several amusement parks — big ones, markets that are very vibrant," says Petraeus, commander of the roughly 150,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. The scenes provide a sign that the new strategy in Iraq is working, although many problems remain, he told USA TODAY in an interview Wednesday.

Five months after President Bush ordered an increase of 20,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, data suggest that sectarian violence in Baghdad has declined. Other tentative signs of progress have included a rise in Iraqi army enlistments and some quality-of-life improvements such as fewer electricity blackouts in the capital.

. . . Meanwhile, U.S. commanders have urged the American public not to pass judgment on the plan's effectiveness until after all U.S. troops are fully deployed. That is due to happen Friday. In September, Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker are to present a report on the plan's effectiveness to leaders in Washington.

Petraeus did not specifically say what subjects he might address in his evaluation. Here is a look at some of the changes in Iraq since February.

Possible signs of progress

•Iraq's army.

The Iraqi army currently has 152,500 trained and equipped soldiers, nearly 20,000 more troops than were on the rosters in January, according to the U.S. State Department. Another 20,000 soldiers will be added to the ranks this year, the U.S. military says.

The Army now has its own Iraqi-run basic training and leadership schools. "The Iraqi army has, in general, done quite well in the face of some really serious challenges," Petraeus says. "In certain areas it really is very heartening to see what it has done."

•Anbar province.

This area in the heart of the Sunni Triangle has been held up by the U.S. military as a model for Iraq. "The progress in Anbar has actually been breathtaking," Petraeus says.

Commanders credit much of the success to the U.S. military's decision to arm, train and organize Sunni provincial militias that have turned against al-Qaeda militants operating in the area.

"If you've got folks who say, 'Hey, this is my hometown, and I'm tired of the violence and if you simply train and equip me, I'll protect my hometown.' We ought to jump on that like a duck on a June bug," says Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, commander of the 3rd Infantry Division.

Commanders elsewhere in Iraq are studying lessons that can be learned from Anbar, although Petraeus said that each area of Iraq has "unique circumstances." Anbar is mostly Sunni and does not have the volatile sectarian mix that stokes violence in other parts of the country.

•Sectarian violence.

The number of unidentified bodies found in Baghdad — an indicator of sectarian violence between Sunni and Shiite Muslims — dropped from a high of 1,782 in October to 411 in April, according to an Interior Ministry official who declined to be named because he is not authorized to speak to the media.

The body count spiked to 726 in May. So far this month, the numbers are again on a "downward trend," Petraeus says. Although the bombing Wednesday of a major Shiite shrine in Samarra raises the risk of a new outbreak of sectarian violence, he says.

Areas of concern

• U.S. casualties. As U.S. forces spread deeper into insurgent-held territories, they are paying the price in blood. At least 230 soldiers were killed in April and May, the highest two-month death toll since the war began. This month, at least 32 soldiers have been killed in Iraq.

Roadside bombs — improvised explosive devices — remain the No. 1 killer of U.S. troops. Sixty-five percent of May casualties were caused by IEDs, up from 32% in February, according to a study by the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.

• Iraqi police. Iraq's 135,000-strong police force continues to be plagued with problems, U.S. commanders say. Up to 70% of Iraqi police leaders have been replaced because they had ties to sectarian violence, Petraeus says.

About 5,000 police deserted the force in the 18 months before January, Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey said at a Pentagon news conference Wednesday. Another 7,000 or 8,000 police officers are unaccounted for.

"I have great concerns about the police," Lynch says. "There are large areas in (central Iraq) where there are no police. And in areas where we do have police, we have corrupt police."

• Political unity. Al-Maliki's government has been unable to push any major initiatives through Iraq's parliament, including a law on how to share the country's oil revenues.

"I think everyone, including the government of Iraq, is impatient with the rate of progress in a variety of different areas," Petraeus says. "They are trying to do it in a reasonably democratic way … in a government that is comprised of representatives from ethno-sectarian interests."
Read the entire story here. The USA today also had a Q&A with General Petraeus addressing both daily Iranian acts of war and the situation with Sadr and his militia:
Q: What is the current influence (in Iraq) from Iran?

A: The Iranian influence has been very, very harmful to Iraq. There is absolutely no question that Iranians are funding, arming, training, and even in some cases, directing the activities of extremists and militia elements.

It's more than disappointing given that one would think Iran would want the first Arab-Shiite state to succeed rather than wanting apparently to contribute to continued instability and serious security challenges.

The people they are arming are very, very serious thugs. Among them certainly are those who kidnapped the (five) British civilians the other day.

Q: What's your assessment of the Iraqi government's role in the military "surge?" Are they a help or a hindrance?

A: If you drive around Baghdad, you'll find astonishing signs of normalcy in perhaps half to two-thirds of the city. … In fact, the car bomb numbers have come down fairly steadily as well until just a couple of days ago, and we'll see if we can get those coming down again. …

There's a real vibrancy in certain parts of Iraq, and in others obviously there is continued fighting and a sectarian cycle of violence underway. Obviously, there is damage, a need to … help them stitch back the fabric of society that was torn during the height of the sectarian violence.

Q: (Shiite cleric) Muqtada al-Sadr has been a thorn in your side. … Do you want to arrest him? Why or why not?

A: Well, actually, first of all I'd like to say that Muqtada al-Sadr issued a very constructive statement today in the wake of the Samarra attack calling for mourning for several days and calling for restraint. That continues the line of messages that he has put out since his return from Iran a couple weeks ago in which he has ordered his followers not to attack Sunnis (or) other Iraqis, not to attack mosques and shrines. …

I think it's really still early in the day after his return to see what he and his movement will do. Whether their role will be a constructive one or whether some of his followers will resume sectarian attacks, shooting rockets at the International Zone, attack our soldiers with IEDs (improvised explosive devices) and so forth. That still has happened. Although we have seen some signs that perhaps some of his followers have taken a knee.
Read the rest of the story here. And, given that this is the first balanced report from Iraq by a MSM outlet that I can recall in recent memory, may I suggest supporting the USA Tody. At least sign up for the free online membership.

(Big H/T Steve Halter)

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