BAGHDAD — When Gen. David H. Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker brief Congress this week, they will be hard-pressed to depict Iraq as moving toward stability in the wake of recent violence that sent deaths soaring to their highest level in seven months.
Prime Minister Nouri Maliki's move against Shiite Muslim militias has revealed the gravity of the country's Shiite rivalries, just as U.S. forces are decreasing their presence.
The intense combat in southern Iraq that pitted Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr's Mahdi Army against Iraqi and American forces has largely wound down for the time being, but the enmity that fueled it remains. Fighting between the two sides flared Sunday in Baghdad, leaving as many as 22 dead.
The military campaign in the southern port of Basra, which the government says targeted all armed groups, unraveled a seven-month freeze on armed operations observed by the Mahdi Army that had been considered pivotal to Iraq's recent reduction in violence.
"We are now locked in a battle," said a high-ranking Iraqi government official, who predicted more confrontations in the coming months. "I think this will be a hot summer in Iraq."
Crocker, in a meeting with foreign journalists Thursday, praised Maliki for taking on militias but said the prime minister had started a fight that could not be dropped.
"Having taken a commendable position that they are not going to accept this kind of presence, they will then have to make good on it, whether it's through removal of heavy weapons or through the other necessary steps to actually take full control of every area where militias are embedded," Crocker said. "And I can't predict when and how that will go. It will be crucial to the future of the country that it proceed."
That's not the only problem.
There also are signs that the group Al Qaeda in Iraq is working to regenerate itself. Car bombs and suicide bombings, the hallmarks of the Sunni Arab extremist group, have crept up since December, according to U.S. military figures.
Overall, last month's 1,079 war-related deaths were the highest since August, when 1,860 people were killed. The sharp increase was due in large part to the Basra offensive and the ensuing battles, which Iraqi officials say killed more than 600 people.
A U.S. military official said that as long as weapons, fighters and other aid to both Sunni and Shiite fighters continue to enter Iraq from Iran, Syria and elsewhere, there is little chance of the country's violence dropping to a level that one could call normal.
"We're a long way from that," he said.
Similar assessments were heard last week in Washington, where Iraq experts suggested in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that security gains had gone as far as they could, given Iraq's political and sectarian polarization.
Terrence Kelly, who worked on Iraqi militia issues for the U.S. government in 2004, said that as long as Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish leaders remained determined not to cede power to one another, there was no chance of violence declining further.
"Five years of data indicate that political violence will remain a characteristic of Iraqi society for some time to come," said Kelly, a researcher at the Rand Corp. He cautioned that "true reconciliation is likely at least a generation away."
None of this bodes well for U.S. hopes of decreasing its troop strength in Iraq after July, when the last of five extra brigades sent here in 2007 is due to go home.
Petraeus and Crocker, who are to go before Congress on Tuesday and Wednesday, have the task of presenting what is at best a mixed bag of statistics. Petraeus, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, is expected to argue for a pause in further troop withdrawals to evaluate the impact of reductions on the country's security.
The number of attacks and deaths decreased steadily from September, the last time the two officials addressed Congress, through the end of 2007. But in January, attacks by suspected Sunni Muslim extremists wearing explosives vests increased sharply. Car bomb attacks went up slightly as well. February saw similar increases in violence linked to Sunni extremists.
The high-ranking Iraqi government official predicted that Sunni attacks would rise largely because of the U.S. presidential campaign.
"We must anticipate they will do everything in their power to mount spectacular attacks and increase the level of violence to tell Americans Iraq is not worth it," he said.
The Iraqi government's Basra offensive last month and the battles with Sadr's Mahdi Army militia that quickly spread across southern Iraq and into Baghdad show how rivalries between Shiite factions jeopardize the country's stability. The fighting also revealed the wobbly state of the Iraqi security forces and, some critics say, Maliki's propensity for barging into a volatile situation without proper planning.
U.S. officials have said they were taken by surprise at how aggressively Maliki moved troops into Basra.