By Bradley Graham
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 24, 2006
Faced with a resurgence of sectarian violence in Iraq, the Bush administration took a largely wait-and-see posture in public yesterday while laboring behind the scenes to try to bolster Iraqi military forces and prevent the unraveling of negotiations on forming a new unity government.
The U.S. military, which has lowered force levels in Iraq by more than 20,000 troops since December's elections to about 133,000 now, reported no moves toward a possible new buildup. Instead, several U.S. military officers said, the plan is to rely on Iraq's fledgling security forces to take the lead in attempting to contain the strife.
Washington officials found some encouragement in what they said appeared to be a drop in attacks yesterday from the day before, when the bombing of a revered Shiite shrine in Samarra sparked a wave of retaliatory attacks that left dozens of Sunni mosques in ruins and scores of people dead.
Still, more than 100 new deaths were reported as a result of clashes between rival Muslim sects, and U.S. officials here acknowledged that the situation remains volatile in the next few days, particularly with large demonstrations scheduled.
"This isn't a bump in the road, it's a pothole," said Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, a senior policy and planning officer with U.S. Central Command, which oversees U.S. forces in the region. "And we'll find out if the shock absorbers in the Iraqi society will hold or whether this will crack the frame."
Although worried by the prospect that the latest fighting could mark a major turning point toward all-out civil war, administration officials sought to convey concern without appearing to panic.
"On the one hand, we don't want to give the impression that we're not focused on this," a senior State Department official said. "On the other hand, we don't want to play up the 'we're on the brink of civil war argument.' We think we should take a deep breath, do all the things we're doing, and see how this thing shakes out in the next few days."
President Bush yesterday commended Iraqi leaders for urging calm and reaffirmed a U.S. pledge to help rebuild the Askariya shrine in Samarra. "I'm pleased with the voices of reason that have spoken out, and we will continue to work with those voices of reason to enable Iraq to continue on the path of a democracy that unites people and doesn't divide them," Bush told reporters after a Cabinet meeting.
Similarly, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, traveling to Beirut, stressed moves underway to try to bridge sectarian differences and avoid a more serious rupture.
"I don't think we do the Iraqi people any good, or really that we are fair to them, in continually raising the specter that they might fall into civil war," Rice told reporters. She noted that U.S. officials were engaged in "a lot of contact" with Iraqi authorities "about how to deal with the situation."
Some U.S. officials likened the tensions to the spring of 2004, which saw simultaneous Sunni and Shiite uprisings in Iraq. But other officials involved in shaping administration policy on Iraq disputed that, saying the violence has been less extensive and that Iraqi security forces and political institutions are better prepared to restore order.
They pointed to swift measures taken by Iraqi commanders yesterday to beef up forces in Samarra and other centers of unrest, including the heavily Shiite cities of Karbala and Najaf. They also noted the Iraqi government's decision, after a meeting with U.S. authorities, to impose a daytime curfew in Baghdad and three surrounding provinces to reduce the potential for clashes.
In the event conditions spiral out of control, U.S. military officers said, forces in Iraq could be quickly enlarged by a U.S. army brigade of about 3,500 troops on standby in Kuwait and by the deployment of other strategic reserve elements from the United States. But the officers said violence in Iraq would have to reach a much higher level to trigger such moves.
"The best way forward is to have the Iraqi police and military handle the situation, with the coalition forces in a support role," Kimmitt said.
Nonetheless, U.S. officials anticipate that tensions will remain high in Iraq for at least the next few days. One critical indicator, several officials said, will be the messages delivered by imams at prayer services today.
The violence has jeopardized efforts to form a new government, as Sunni Arab political leaders abruptly withdrew from talks with Iraq's Shiite ruling parties.
But officials here held out hope that the interruption will be brief. They said the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, is engaged in reconciliation efforts and noted that the Sunnis have suspended cooperation several times before. "So there's a pattern of them venting and coming back," one official said.