Troop surge fails to dampen violence

And Yochi J. Dreazen


When the Bush administration decided to send tens of thousands of additional troops to Iraq, the strategy rested on an unspoken trade-off: U.S. troops would risk greater casualties to tamp down violence and buy the Baghdad government time to make the political compromises needed to reconcile the country's warring factions.

But a resurgence of sectarian violence and attacks on U.S. troops, coupled with little to no progress on crucial Iraqi political goals, is already spurring discussion about whether the current strategy can succeed.

In the near term, senior American military officials in Baghdad are wrestling with how to increase the effectiveness of the "surge" strategy between now and September, when Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander in Iraq, is supposed to give Washington a progress report. U.S. officials here and in Baghdad are also waging a parallel debate over how long the "surge" should last &

and whether the U.S. needs to begin planning for an alternative approach that would scale back both U.S. troop levels and American ambitions in Iraq.

With about 120 U.S. fatalities, May has been the deadliest month for U.S. troops since the fight for Fallujah in April 2004. The problems facing the surge have been compounded by the recent re-emergence of Moqtada al-Sadr, a Shiite Muslim cleric whose heavily armed militia has waged an on-again, off-again guerilla war against U.S. and British forces for almost four years. His Mahdi Army has also been linked to the wide-scale abductions and killings of young Sunni Muslim men.

When the additional U.S. forces began streaming into Iraq in mid-February, Sadr dropped from sight and his fighters stood down. But earlier this week, he returned to the public stage with an angry speech denouncing the American presence in Iraq and promising to resume his fight against "the occupation."

His strident remarks coincided with an uptick in attacks linked to the Mahdi Army, including this week's kidnapping of five British citizens from a Finance Ministry building in central Baghdad. A British officer in the southern city of Basra, communicating via e-mail, said the number of daily attacks in his area of operation had nearly doubled in the past week, with most strikes carried out by Mahdi fighters.

"JAM's leadership has made a conscious decision to rejoin the fight," he said, using the military's acronym for the Arabic name of Sadr's force.

In Baghdad, the number of sectarian killings also has begun to climb again. An American official in the U.S. Embassy there said more than 400 unidentified corpses had been found so far this month, up from 320 found in January, the last month before the additional U.S. forces began arriving in Baghdad.

Senior U.S. officials in Baghdad caution that the last of the five additional brigades just arrived on the ground in Baghdad and that it is too early to pass judgment on the plan. Each brigade numbers about 5,000 soldiers and support troops. They also point to successes such as an increase in the number of tribal leaders who say they want to work with U.S. forces to fight al Qaeda in Iraq, a dynamic that has sharply reduced the violence in Sunni-dominated Anbar province.

But even the staunchest supporters of the "surge" strategy acknowledge that the U.S. must do more to push political reconciliation in Baghdad among feuding Sunnis and Shiites. One debate roiling Baghdad now concerns whether the political process is stalled because elected officials are merely inneffectual or because they are more interested in advancing their sectarian agendas than in governance.

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