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Turmoil prevails in Iraq

The violence has shifted, and more are fleeing sectarian strife.

September 04, 2007|Tina Susman | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — The U.S. military buildup that was supposed to calm Baghdad and other trouble spots has failed to usher in national reconciliation, as the capital's neighborhoods rupture even further along sectarian lines, violence shifts elsewhere and Iraq's government remains mired in political infighting.

In the coming days, U.S. military and government leaders will offer Congress their assessment of the 6-month-old plan's results. But a review of statistics on death and displacement, political developments and the impressions of Iraqis who are living under the heightened military presence reaches a dispiriting conclusion.

Despite the plan, which has brought an additional 28,500 U.S. troops to Iraq since February, none of the major legislation that Washington had expected the Iraqi parliament to pass into law has been approved.

The number of Iraqis fleeing their homes has increased, not decreased, according to the United Nations' International Organization for Migration and Iraq's Ministry for Displacement and Migration.

Military officials say sectarian killings in Baghdad are down more than 51% and attacks on civilians and security forces across Iraq have decreased. But this has not translated into a substantial drop in civilian deaths as insurgents take their lethal trade to more remote regions. Last month, as many as 400 people were killed in a bombing in a village near the Syrian border, the worst bombing since the war began in March 2003. In July, 150 people were reported killed in a village about 100 miles north of Baghdad.

And in a sign that tamping down Sunni-Shiite violence is no guarantee of stability, a feud between rival Shiite Muslim militias has killed scores of Iraqis in recent months. Last week, at least 52 people died in militia clashes in the Shiite holy city of Karbala.

At best, analysts, military officers and ordinary Iraqis portray the country as in a holding pattern, dependent on U.S. troops to keep the lid on violence.

"The military offensive has temporarily suppressed, or in many cases dislocated, armed groups," said Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group. "Once the military surge peters out, which it will if there is no progress on the political front, these groups will pop right back up and start going at each other's, and civilians', throats again."

Political stalemate

Iraq's political stalemate and the continued violence have forced a major shift in the mind-set of U.S. officials, who had lofty visions of the plan creating conditions under which Prime Minister Nouri Maliki's Shiite-led government would foster reconciliation among Shiites, Sunni Arabs and Kurds.

Like the Baghdad neighborhoods where Sunni and Shiite Muslims and Christians once lived side by side, the early troop-buildup "benchmarks" have been whittled down to remnants of their former selves.

Now, military and government officials highlight progress on the local, neighborhood and even street level. Much of it hinges on the future of deals struck with former insurgents who until recently were aiming their guns at U.S. forces.

"There are . . . if you will, mini-benchmarks where things are happening," U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker said Aug. 21. Crocker cited Anbar province, west of Baghdad, where violence has dropped substantially since Sunni Arab leaders there began working with U.S. and Iraqi security forces.

"We've seen that phenomenon in different forms move through different parts of the country," Crocker said. "It's the steps these tribes, communities, individuals are taking. . . . You've got to keep an eye on that too."

Anbar's situation is far from solid, though. A bomber attacked a mosque in one of its main cities, Fallouja, on Aug. 27, killing at least 10 people, and scores of civilians and Iraqi security forces have died in bombings elsewhere in the province in recent months.

Anbar also represents just one particularly homogenous Sunni Arab slice. There is no indication that progress made there can be replicated on a grand enough scale to have a nationwide effect.

"It's always easy to get the prospective loser in a civil war to agree to a cease-fire," said Stephen Biddle, a counterinsurgency expert at the Council on Foreign Relations who has advised military commanders in Iraq. Sunnis are a minority and far more open to switching loyalties if it ensures them a future stake in governing Iraq, he said.

"It's a lot tougher to get the prospective winner to agree to a cease-fire," Biddle said, referring to the majority Shiites. "Getting them to sign on is going to be harder because they see themselves in ascendancy."

Expressing optimism

Publicly, at least, U.S. military leaders express optimism.

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