Iraq Violence Up As Troop Levels Drop

Iraq Violence Up As Troop Levels Drop
April 7th, 2008  
Team Infidel

Topic: Iraq Violence Up As Troop Levels Drop

Iraq Violence Up As Troop Levels Drop
Boston Globe
April 7, 2008
Pg. 1
Value of the surge debated
By Farah Stockman and Bryan Bender, Globe Staff
WASHINGTON - Since the US military began reducing its troop presence in Iraq three months ago, several key indicators of violence in the troubled nation have risen, according to new military figures released this weekend, sparking fears that security gains hailed by the White House are already eroding.
The rise in violence - blamed on both Shi'ite militants and Sunni extremists allied with Al Qaeda - has prompted war critics to argue that President Bush's surge of 30,000 more troops last year, designed to stabilize the nation, merely postponed the inevitable deadly chaos that will follow an eventual US withdrawal.
Other analysts question whether the US strategy planted the seeds for greater bloodshed by funding, and arming, various Sunni and Shi'ite factions who may eventually battle one another or fight among themselves.
Since December, the Pentagon has withdrawn about 5,700 US soldiers and Marines without replacement, and the remaining 24,000 additional troops are set to return to the United States by July, leaving about 140,000 combat and support troops.
Administration and Pentagon officials continue to defend the surge, saying that while violence is rising, it is still far below the level it had been at its peak in 2006 and 2007.
But as General David Petraeus, the top American commander in Iraq, and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, the chief diplomat, pre pare to testify to Congress tomorrow, US military officials are clearly worried that instability could return.
"There is a lot of tension on the streets," Rear Admiral Gregory Smith, the chief military spokesman, said in a telephone interview from Baghdad on Saturday. "The [majority] Shi'ite populations are still, I would say, very concerned about the level of potential violence that could erupt at any moment."
Two key measures of the security situation tracked by US commanders - suicide bombings and Iraqi casualties, mostly civilians - have spiked in the last few months, according to official US military statistics.
The number of Sunni insurgents who blew themselves up with suicide vests doubled between last December and February. There were 10 such attacks in December, 16 in January, and 20 in February, compared with just six in October and eight in November of last year. Last month, the attacks declined to 10 - roughly the level they were when Bush announced the surge in January 2007, Smith said.
Meanwhile, explosive-laden cars and trucks detonated with a driver at the wheel - considered a separate type of suicide attack - hit 17 last month after just one in February and five in January.
The attacks have contributed to a big jump in the Iraqi civilian death toll along with the recent offensive by Shi'ite militia fighters loyal to cleric Moqtada Al Sadr who battled for several days with US and Iraqi troops in Baghdad and Basra in late March.
Overall, Iraqi deaths rose from a low of 568 in December and 541 in January to roughly 721 in February to more than 1,082 in March, according to statistics compiled by Iraq's ministries of health, interior, and defense and confirmed by Smith. The vast majority were civilians.
"There was somewhere on the order of a 25 or 30 percent increase in the number of civilian casualties when you consider March compared to February," Smith said, although "the numbers are still nowhere near what they had been last summer."
US troop deaths have also crept up, from 23 in December - the lowest number since 2004 - to 40 in January, 29 in February, and 38 in March, according to, a website that tracks the deaths of US service members in Iraq through Pentagon press releases. Deaths are still lower than their monthly peak last year of 126 deaths in May.
Petraeus is expected to tell lawmakers this week that the extra US troops Bush ordered drastically reduced violence in much of Iraq, but that the situation could still disintegrate.
In his report, Crocker is expected to tell Congress that Iraqis have moved toward brokering a more permanent peace between warring factions, but have fallen short of meeting US goals of passing laws aimed at fostering reconciliation.
Petraeus and Crocker have attributed the progress to the troop increase, the new alliance with Sunni tribesmen who have turned against Al Qaeda in Iraq, and the decision of Sadr to order his militia to stand down when the extra US troops arrived.
But US payments to Sunni tribesmen to take up arms against a common threat, Al Qaeda in Iraq, have made tribal sheiks a frequent target of Al Qaeda assassinations and suicide attacks. Critics of the payments also worry that the well-funded Sunni groups will turn against the Iraqi government, or one another, in the future.
In recent weeks, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's operation against rogue elements of Sadr's forces in Basra and Baghdad also threatened to ignite a simmering battle for power between three powerful Shi'ite militias in southern Iraq. About 600 of the roughly 1,000 deaths of Iraqis in March came during Maliki's offensive, which saw US troops coming to the aid of overwhelmed Iraqi troops.
The operation, which ended with a truce brokered in Iran and both sides claiming victory, opened the door to increased violence in southern Iraq, where the United States has virtually no military presence and where British troops have dramatically reduced their role. Yesterday, at least 20 people were killed in clashes in Sadr City, a Shi'ite section of Baghdad.
"There is no question that there will be more intra-Shi'ite violence. The question is: How bad will it be?" said Kenneth Pollack, a specialist on Iraq at the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank. "The big question is: How do you pull our resources out of Iraq, preserve the gains made in the north, and prevent deterioration in the south?"
The only reason [violence in Basra] stopped is both Sadr and Iran influenced the groups to put down their arms. . . .They could easily start things back up again," Smith said.
Ironically, another factor that may ratchet up violence in southern Iraq is the much-celebrated passage of the provincial powers law, which sets local elections for October. US officials long pressed for the law's passage, contending that new elections are essential to defusing the Sunni insurgency because it will give disgruntled Sunnis who boycotted 2004 elections a chance to participate in politics.
But in the south disillusioned Shi'ite voters are expected to hand Sadr a sweeping victory over Maliki's unpopular political coalition, weakening the Iraq leader's already tenuous grip on power outside of Baghdad.
The offensive against Sadr - and the increase in violence - are likely to spark some pointed questions for Petraeus and Crocker on Capitol Hill this week. After months of celebration of the surge's success at reducing violence, critics of the war now believe that the short-term gains of the surge have not helped Iraq's future - and may have even made things worse.
"The surge is prolonging instability, not creating the conditions for unity, as the president claims," retired Lieutenant General William E. Odom told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week.
Odom said it "placed the United States astride several civil wars and it allows all sides to consolidate, rearm, and refill their financial coffers at the US expense."
The United States now faces the difficult choice of drawing down troops - and risking a return of major violence - or continuing to keep a large troop presence in Iraq that backs factions that are in open conflict with one another, said Martin Indyk, who served as assistant secretary of state for near east affairs during the Clinton administration.
"If we draw down our forces further, all of these factors that we have managed to suppress are going to emerge in full force," Indyk said. "But if we don't, these forces are going to develop in all sorts of ways we can't control."

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