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Surge of optimism recedes

New tactics, not just more troops, are needed, experts say.

June 17, 2007|Tina Susman | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Hassan Shimari rarely goes out without his 4-year-old son, not out of fatherly devotion but because he knows there is less chance of being abducted and killed by militiamen if he has the little boy in tow.

Two months ago, even as a Sunni man living in a mainly Shiite district of Baghdad, Shimari had no such fears. In an interview in mid-April, he praised the U.S.-led military "surge" launched in February and said that for the first time in months, he felt safe.

Shimari's change of heart, based on the reappearance of roaming Shiite militiamen and corpses on the streets of his Shaab district, is a small but noteworthy sign of the security plan's failure. "You never know when they are going to take someone and put them in the trunk of the car," Shimari said of the militias. "The killings, it seems, have returned."

The U.S. military says it will be months before the plan's effect is felt. Publicly, it remains optimistic. But some military analysts, soldiers and civilian advisors say the number of U.S. troops and qualified Iraqi forces won't be enough to pacify Iraq for many years. And with Iraq's political, sectarian and economic woes, that makes this a no-win mission unless drastic tactical changes are made, they argue.

One solution being proposed by advisors to those running the war is finding a way to convince all parties, from insurgents to stubborn politicians, that they have more to gain by cooperating with U.S. forces and one another than by fighting.

New tactics proposed

Stephen D. Biddle, a counterinsurgency expert at the Council on Foreign Relations who has advised the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David H. Petraeus, and other military leaders, advocates negotiating bilateral cease-fires with different groups and trading weapons, money, equipment and other forms of support for cooperation.

It is the only solution, said Biddle, who was in Iraq in March and April in his advisory role.

Hoping for a political solution to take hold as violence subsides, as the surge strategy intended, is futile given the distrust among the different groups, who fear annihilation if they forfeit any power, said Biddle and Phebe Marr, an Iraq expert who served as an advisor to the Iraq Study Group, the panel composed of former U.S. officials.

"This is a struggle for power," Marr said. All of Iraq's polarized groups need to believe they have a future in the country, she said. "That requires accommodation of some sort in which some insurgents at least have a stake in the system and are accommodated enough to say it's not worth fighting anymore."

The bombing last week of the Golden Mosque in Samarra, the second attack on the Shiite shrine in 16 months, underscored the determination of the insurgency. The latest blast was the most spectacular sign of the surge's limitations in quelling sectarian violence, but it was not the only one.

Execution-style killings, which plummeted after the security plan was launched, are creeping back toward pre-surge levels, according to Iraqi police who each night tally the number of corpses found across Baghdad. March's total was 542, April's was 440, and May's was 743. The toll in January, the month before the surge kicked off, was 830.

The Pentagon, in a report issued last week, said the monthly rate of suicide bombings was nearly double that in January, when the military reported 26. And while civilian casualties have dropped in the capital, where most extra soldiers are deployed, they have increased nationwide, the report said.

Politically, none of the legislative benchmarks that the White House considers essential for reconciliation has been met. The one considered most attainable, passage of a law to open Iraq's oilfields to outside investors and to share the nation's oil wealth equitably among its provinces, has yet to be considered by parliament. Economically, the biggest goal -- reviving the oil industry -- remains stalled because of the delayed bill.

There are signs of progress. The number of weapons caches seized has more than doubled, and efforts are underway to revive two of the capital's hallmarks of social and economic life: the riverside restaurants and shops along Abu Nawas street, and the historic Mutanabi book market. To the west, violence has dropped dramatically in Al Anbar province, once one of Iraq's deadliest regions, because Sunni tribal sheiks have turned on Al Qaeda and are cooperating with U.S. forces.

A grim picture

In much of Iraq, though, the picture is grim, and analysts say optimism in the early days of the security plan was misplaced and based upon a decline in killings that had no bearing on the operation's long-term success.

"Even if violence goes down, so what?" said Marr, the Iraq expert. "The real issue here is Iraqis have to move toward some kind of accommodation that will get them to permanently reduce violence, not temporarily."

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