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Pentagon Issues Grim Iraq Report

`Conditions that could lead to civil war exist,' military analysts tell Congress. Deaths and injuries now exceed 3,000 a month.

September 02, 2006|Julian E. Barnes | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Attacks and civilian deaths in Iraq have risen sharply in recent months, with casualties increasing by 1,000 a month, and sectarian violence has engulfed larger areas of the country, the Pentagon said Friday in a strikingly dismal report to Congress.

The quarterly report, based on new government figures, showed the number of attacks in Iraq over the last four months had increased 15% and Iraqi casualties had risen by 51%. Civilian and military deaths and injuries have surpassed 3,000 each month since May.

Over a longer period, the increase in violence is more dramatic. Weekly attacks have nearly doubled, from 423 in spring 2004 to 792. More than 110 people a day died violently in Iraq in the last three months, the report said, up from fewer than 30 a day in 2004.

The Iraqi government reported that violent deaths in Baghdad declined sharply in the first several weeks of August, but civilian deaths rose again in the last week. The current report covers a three-month period that ended in early August.

The report held to previous Bush administration statements that Iraq is not in an all-out civil war, but conceded that "conditions that could lead to civil war exist."

Overall, the tone of the 63-page report is markedly less optimistic than previous quarterly assessments, which the Pentagon has been required to make since last year.

"This is a pretty sober report," said Peter Rodman, the assistant secretary of Defense for international security. "The last quarter has been rough. The level of violence is up. And the sectarian quality of the violence is particularly acute and disturbing."

The data and language of the report also contrasted with recent statements by administration officials who have been seeking to shore up sagging public support for the war.

Administration officials, for example, repeatedly have emphasized that recent violence has been concentrated in Baghdad. The new report notes that violence has increased in Diyala, Mosul and Kirkuk as the sectarian conflict has spread to those cities.

The report also noted that sectarian attacks had set up a cycle of deepening violence in which civilians were driven to "endorse extremist actions on their behalf," lending their support to the insurgent and militia groups in order to provide security for their neighborhoods. That dynamic is undermining the government's reconciliation efforts and ability to provide security.

With an election approaching in which the U.S. involvement in Iraq has become the driving issue, Democrats seized on the new assessment.

Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada said the report showed that the administration was "disconnected from the facts on the ground." His House counterpart, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), said in a statement that the report showed that "prospects for improving security in Iraq in the foreseeable future are bleak."

Democrats accused the administration of delaying the report until after President Bush delivered a major speech on the war Thursday to the American Legion.

In arguing that Iraq is not yet in a full-scale civil war, Defense officials pointed out that Iraqi security forces had remained loyal to the central government and that no rival government had emerged.

"There are important things that have not happened," said Rear Adm. William D. Sullivan, vice director for strategic plans and policy on the Pentagon's Joint Staff. "The sectarian violence is worrisome.... We are not blind to the possibility that this could continue down the wrong path."

Sullivan said he believed that despite the rise in killings, the U.S. was still making progress in the war.

Outside military analysts were more cautious.

Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies said it was difficult to predict eventual victory or defeat in Iraq but the situation was growing bleaker.

"You could make the case for optimism in the past; you cannot now," said Cordesman, who has written extensively on Iraq.

The Pentagon's previous quarterly reports "were unrealistic in every dimension because they understated the insurgency, they grossly overstated economic progress, they were over-optimistic about political progress, and they never seriously addressed the threat of civil conflict," Cordesman said. "But this report has had to face reality."

The report noted that Iraqis remained optimistic, but it cautioned that the positive outlook was eroding. About 59% of Iraqis say economic conditions are poor, and 80% of Baghdad residents believe a civil war might break out -- a marked increase in pessimism from last year.

The violence in Iraq cannot be attributed to a unified, organized insurgency, the report noted. Instead, violence is the result of a complex interplay between international terrorists, local insurgents, sectarian death squads, organized militias and criminal groups.

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