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Buildup falling short in Iraq

U.S. forces have been unable to establish security. Military leaders say they just need more time.

July 11, 2007|Julian E. Barnes and Ned Parker | Times Staff Writers

BAGHDAD — In the Ubaidi neighborhood in the eastern part of this city, American soldiers hired a local Iraqi to clean the Porta-Potties at their combat outpost. Before the man could start, members of the local Shiite militia threatened to kill him.

Today, the Porta-Potties are roped off, and the U.S. soldiers, who could not promise to protect their sewage man, are forced to burn their waste.

As part of the Bush administration's troop "surge" strategy, the U.S. unit here had moved into an abandoned potato chip factory hoping to push out the militia, protect existing jobs and provide stability for economic growth. Instead, militia members stymied development projects, cut off the water supply and executed two young Iraqi women seen talking to U.S. soldiers, sending a powerful message about who really controls Ubaidi's streets.

In the next few days, the Bush administration is scheduled to release a preliminary assessment of its overall Iraq strategy. Officials may point to signs of progress scattered across the country: a reduction in death-squad killings in Baghdad, agreements with tribal leaders in Al Anbar province, offensives north and south of the capital.

President Bush defended his strategy Tuesday, demanding Congress give his administration more time and insisting that America can "win this fight in Iraq." To underscore his request, Bush sent top aides to lobby lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

But as the experience of the troops in Ubaidi indicates, U.S. forces so far have been unable to establish security, even for themselves. Iraqis continue to flee their homes, leaving mixed areas and seeking safety in religiously segregated neighborhoods. About 32,000 families fled in June alone, according to figures compiled by the United Nations and the Iraqi government that are due to be released next week.

U.S. forces have staged offensives to push insurgents out of some safe havens. But many of the insurgents have escaped to new areas of the country, launching attacks where the U.S. presence is lighter.

And there has been no sign of any of the crucial political progress the administration had hoped to see in Iraq.

U.S. commanders are painfully aware that they are running out of time to change those realities. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top American commander in Iraq, has made several efforts to slow the clock in Washington. Each time, it has sped up.

The full complement of the "surge" arrived in Iraq last month, bringing the total to 28,500 additional troops. Military officers originally hoped to have until 2008 before they had to render a verdict on the strategy. Then the Washington timeframe shrank to September. Now, it is shrinking further, with Congress demanding answers even sooner.

Supporters of the troop buildup insist that small steps could grow into larger and more long-term successes if lawmakers are patient.

"Right now we are three weeks into this. It's not like flipping a light switch," said a military officer in Baghdad, expressing the frustration of many commanders. "Time has to be given for things to work."

Commanders point to Ramadi, the capital of Al Anbar province, as a showcase for the kind of results the military wants from the current strategy. Once a battlefield, the city is now largely peaceful, calm enough that in March, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki was able to pay his first official visit.

But military officers stress that it took about nine months of sustained effort to make Ramadi a relatively pacified city. And with its volatile mix of Sunni and Shiite Muslims, Baghdad presents a far more complex challenge than all-Sunni Ramadi.

The interim progress report that Bush promised to release this week is likely to emphasize the success the military has had in killing Sunni militants in the "Baghdad belts," the cities and towns that dot the major rivers and highways leading to the capital. In recent weeks, the newly arrived U.S. forces have been focused on fighting members of Al Qaeda in Iraq, a militant Sunni group made up of Iraqis and foreign fighters.

Top generals say the strategy is crucial to securing Baghdad. Only by controlling the routes into the capital, and denying militants safe havens, can the U.S. and Iraqi militaries keep out the car bombs that stoke sectarian violence inside the capital.

But leading Iraqis are less sure of the strategy.

Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish member of the Iraqi parliament, said the U.S. approach may be successful at weakening Al Qaeda in Iraq. But he said Americans would not be able to solve Iraq's sectarian conflict or stop clashes between armed groups in Baghdad neighborhoods.

"The surge has an important effect in fighting Al Qaeda," the independent politician said. "On the Sunni-Shiite conflict, it hasn't had any effect.... Extremist Shiites and Sunnis are fighting each other. The Americans can't stop this."

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