Can Baghdad be stabilized?


Published: Sunday, January 14, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 14, 2007 at 12:18 a.m.
With his new plan to secure Iraq, President Bush is in effect betting that Iraqi leaders are committed to building a multisectarian state, and his strategy will stand or fall on that assumption.
The plan differs in several respects from the faltering effort to bring stability to Baghdad that began last summer. It calls for a much larger U.S. force. There are to be no safe havens for renegade militias. And, importantly, Iraqi security forces throughout the city are to be put under the direct control of a new Iraqi commander - and backed by U.S. Army battalions.
But the new plan depends on the good intentions and competence of a Shiite-dominated Iraqi government that has not demonstrated an abundant supply of either.
''Everybody raises a question about the intentions and capabilities of this government,'' a senior U.S. official said, referring to the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. ''Is this a government that really is a unity government, or is it in fact pursuing, either explicitly or implicitly, a Shia hegemony agenda?''
It was just in August that the Bush administration hailed the advent of ''Operation Together Forward II,'' a plan intended to provide security to Baghdad's violence-ridden neighborhoods but did not stop the rise in sectarian violence.
Based on the assumption that the establishment of security in Baghdad was a bedrock condition for the broader push to stabilize the country, that plan called for U.S. and Iraqi forces to clear contested neighborhoods in the capital, which would then be held with Iraqi police. That was to be followed to an energetic effort to fix sewage lines and generally rebuild neighborhoods, an effort intended to win public support and help remedy Iraq's chronically high unemployment.
That plan was backed by only modest resources from the start.
With an increase of only 7,000 American troops, the number of Americans participating in the operation was only about 15,000. The Iraqis sent only two of the six battalions that they had promised as reinforcements, bringing the number of Iraqi soldiers involved to 9,600. Some 30,000 Iraqi policemen were to help secure Iraqi neighborhoods, but many police units were infiltrated by the Shiite militias they were supposed to control were or ineffectual. Much of the reconstruction that was to have been carried out by the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government was never undertaken or was directed away from Sunni areas.
The failure of the old plan led to a new strategy. Instead of emphasizing the turning over of security responsibilities to the Iraqi forces as quickly as possible so U.S. troops could begin to withdraw, a new priority was to be put on protecting the Iraqi population.
The new strategy required more U.S. forces, and the generals offered different recommendations as to how large the American troop reinforcement should be.
Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and Gen. John P. Abizaid, the head of the U.S. Central Command, who have long argued that sending too many troops would put off the day when the Iraqis would take responsibility for their own security, initially recommended a more modest approach. According to a senior administration official, they recommended that two additional U.S. combat brigades be sent to Baghdad. A third would be held on reserve in Kuwait and two more would be on call in the United States.
But Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus, who President Bush has selected to replace Casey, wanted to ensure that he had enough troops to carry out what by all accounts will be an extremely challenging mission. He sought a commitment that all five combat brigades would be sent.
Bush opted for the larger commitment. Five brigades are to be sent to improve security in the greater Baghdad area - an increase of about 17,500 troops that will more than double the U.S. force involved in security operations there.
Beyond the capital, about 4,000 additional marines have been earmarked for Anbar, the volatile province in western Iraq that is the base for many Sunni insurgents. U.S. and Sunni Arab forces are essentially locked in a stalemate there, and some officers have long complained that the effort in the west is under-strength. This relatively modest reinforcement is intended to buttress the Americans' ability to interrupt insurgent supply lines from Syria and to make it harder for the insurgents to concentrate their efforts on Baghdad.
Critics of the troop-surge plan have complained that 17,500 more soldiers are too few to control a capital of 6 million people. Supporters say that by concentrating these soldiers in crucial neighborhoods, along with the 15,000 U.S. troops already involved in the operation, the reinforcement can be effective.
An unknown variable is the performance of the Iraqis. The Iraqis are to reinforce Baghdad with three more Iraqi Army brigades, bringing the total number of Iraqi brigades in the city to nine - or 20,000 troops if the units are at full strength.
The Iraqi brigades, along with Iraqi National Police units and regular Iraqi police units, will be deployed in nine sectors of Baghdad, each under an Iraqi commander. In an innovation, a U.S. battalion will be assigned to each sector, a way to stiffen the Iraqi forces and monitor them should some harbor sectarian agendas.
In carrying out the old operation, Americans conducted patrols from large U.S. bases in and around the city. This time, according to Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the second-ranking U.S. commander in Iraq, some U.S. troops will remain in contested areas ''24/7'' to deter death squads and insurgents from infiltrating the sectors once the neighborhoods have been cleared.
In explaining the genesis of the new strategy, administration officials described its formation as essentially the product of a process of elimination. Other options were discarded until the White House was left with what it considered to be the least bad choice in a difficult situation.
Strikingly, Bush in his speech did not exclude the risk of failure. After listing all the reasons why the new plan has a better chance of succeeding than the old one, Bush stressed that he had informed al-Maliki that the U.S. commitment to the new operation was not open-ended.
''If the Iraqi government does not follow through on its promises, it will have lost the support of the American people,'' Bush said. ''Now is the time to act.''

Reader comments posted to this article may be published in our print edition. All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be re-published without permission. Links are encouraged.

Comments are currently unavailable on this article

▲ Return to Top