Calls for Shift in Iraq Strategy Growing

By Bradley Graham
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 11, 2005

A growing number of U.S. lawmakers and defense experts are urging a shift in U.S. military strategy in Iraq that would focus less on trying to secure the whole country and more on shoring up protection of major population centers.

The arguments for change arise from concern that U.S. and Iraqi forces lack the numbers still to combat insurgents everywhere and that enemy fighters have continued to show a disturbing ability to cause significant casualties in major Iraqi cities that by now should have become safe zones.

In the aftermath of fresh bombings yesterday in Baghdad and Tikrit, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) added his voice to those calling for a new focus. He said the emphasis up to now on rooting out insurgent strongholds through widespread, short-duration raids -- what he termed "sweeping and leaving" -- is not working.

"Rather than focusing on killing and capturing insurgents, we should emphasize protecting the local population, creating secure areas where insurgents find it difficult to operate," the senator said in a speech at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. He added that such an approach would require more troops and resources, arguing against the idea of reducing U.S. forces in Iraq next year.

The persistent ability of enemy groups to move fighters around the country -- eluding raids or replenishing their ranks after taking casualties -- has put pressure on the Pentagon to demonstrate that U.S. tactics are effective. U.S. commanders have acknowledged a measure of frustration at needing to send forces back to some cities and towns where insurgents had returned after being chased out months earlier. But they insist progress is being made.

They also say they already are pursuing a version of the strategy advocated by McCain and other critics. Indeed, for months now, senior officers at the U.S. military command in Baghdad have been using the term "clear and hold" as a shorthand description of their counterinsurgency strategy. The same term was applied by Gen. Creighton W. Abrams Jr. to his Vietnam pacification strategy in the late 1960s and early 1970s, which followed the "search and destroy" campaign of his predecessor, Gen. William C. Westmoreland.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice elevated the phrase last month into a kind of official bumper sticker for the U.S. campaign in Iraq. "Our political-military strategy has to be to clear, hold and build: to clear areas from insurgent control, to hold them securely, and to build durable, national Iraqi institutions," she told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

But in practice, critics say, U.S. forces have tended to place more emphasis on clearing than holding. And senior officers and administration officials conceded in interviews this week that the holding aspect has received less attention, in large part because of a shortage of available troops.

U.S. commanders have avoided seeking more American forces for such defensive missions, waiting instead for additional Iraqi military and police forces to emerge from training. With those personnel now exceeding 211,000, the shortage is easing, officials said.

"The difference now is, we have Iraqi forces that can do the holding," said a senior administration official involved in policymaking on Iraq. "We didn't want to use U.S. forces to do a lot of the holding because it gave the impression of occupation."

Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said U.S. authorities also had underestimated what would be required to keep areas free of enemy activity.

"We thought that once we had turned the town over to the local people, that they would be able to defend their own territory and take care of themselves," he said Monday on PBS's "NewsHour With Jim Lehrer." "So now the Iraq armed forces that have been trained up will do that for their own people."

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