Good news and bad in Iraq

U.S. reports point to security improvements but are pessimistic about political and economic progress.

June 24, 2008|Julian E. Barnes | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Two new government reports, one by the Pentagon, pointed Monday to encouraging security improvements in Iraq, but were decidedly pessimistic about prospects for political and economic progress and warned that costly military gains would remain fragile.

One report, by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, concluded that many political reconciliation efforts have stalled, that Iraq's security forces remain largely unable to operate without U.S. assistance and that its central government has not fulfilled commitments to spend its own money on reconstruction.

As a result, a new U.S. strategy for attaining military, political and economic goals is needed, the GAO said.

The Pentagon, while not agreeing on the need for a new strategy, acknowledged problems throughout Iraq. The quarterly report on progress also cited continued dissatisfaction among Iraqis over essential services such as water, electricity, sanitation and healthcare and said government officials in Baghdad "lack the ability" to advance needed rebuilding projects.

Both reports cite dramatic improvements in security, and officials say the number of attacks is continuing to plummet. On Monday, Lt. Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, the No. 2 U.S. military commander in Iraq, said that the number of attacks had fallen from an average of 1,200 per week in June 2007 to 200 per week this June.

"Iraq is a much better place than it was a year ago across the board, politically, economically and from a security standpoint," Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Monday. "But we are not at the sustainable point yet, we are not at the irreversible point yet."

The GAO credited many security improvements to the U.S.-led initiative that pays former insurgents to guard their neighborhoods, a project the report called a "key component" of Washington's strategy.

But ominously, both the Pentagon and GAO reports note potential problems with the so-called Sons of Iraq program. Most Sunni Arab groups whose members have been brought into the program have yet to reconcile their differences with the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government, the GAO report notes. The Pentagon said the program faces the challenge of combating infiltration by extremist groups and concluded that the Iraqi government cannot currently manage the effort.

Because of deep sectarian divisions, the Pentagon report predicted that future political and diplomatic progress in Iraq "may be slow and uneven." The report also noted that new laws must be implemented fairly to avoid heightening sectarian tensions.

Pentagon officials argued that security improvements will provide more opportunities for Iraqi officials to compromise on key pieces of reconciliation legislation.

"Iraqis are taking advantage of some of those opportunities, but there is more they have to do," said a senior Defense official, who spoke at a background briefing but was prohibited by the Defense Department from using his name.

The Pentagon report also repeated a frequent observation that Iran may pose the "greatest long-term threat" to Iraq. Despite an overall decline in attacks on U.S. forces, the report notes, the number of armor-piercing bombs increased in late March and hit an all-time high in April. Many of the weapons are made in Iran, U.S. officials say.

More broadly, the GAO said the Bush administration has not planned adequately for the drawdown of troops sent for last year's buildup. Most of the additional forces are expected to leave Iraq by the end of July.

Although administration officials have spoken about goals for Iraq, they have not specified a new strategy to follow the troop buildup, the GAO said.

The Pentagon said a "joint campaign plan" crafted by the U.S. Embassy and military command in Baghdad provides a broad strategy.

"The joint campaign plan is a living document that is constantly being reviewed and updated based on changing conditions," said the senior Defense official.

As the number of U.S. troops declines, military officials say they hope to shift troops to an "overwatch" role, handing day-to-day responsibility to Iraqi forces.

But the GAO report said that only 10% of Iraqi security forces are capable of conducting operations independently. A senior military official, responding to the GAO report on condition of anonymity, said it understated the abilities of the rapidly growing Iraqi forces.

Austin, speaking via teleconference from Iraq, praised the improved capabilities of the Iraqi military, saying units could plan and lead operations. But Austin made it clear that even with the end of the troop build-up, he is not ready for the U.S. to step back and let Iraqi forces take the overall lead.

"They have improved significantly, but we've been clear about saying that they're not there yet," Austin said.




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