By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 2, 2006
Rising sectarian bloodshed has pushed violence in Iraq to its highest level in more than two years, and preventing civil war is now the most urgent mission of the growing contingent of 140,000 U.S. troops in the country, according to a new Pentagon report released yesterday.
Executions, kidnappings and other sectarian attacks targeting Iraqi civilians have soared over the past three months, contributing to a 51 percent rise in casualties among the population and Iraqi security forces, the report said. More than 3,000 Iraqis are killed or wounded each month, and by July, 2,000 of the casualties were the result of sectarian incidents, it showed.
The Pentagon report, though consistent with what news media have reported for months, is significant because it represents an official acknowledgment of trends that are widely believed to be driving the country toward full-scale civil war.
"It's a pretty sober report this time," said Peter Rodman, assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs. "The last quarter . . . it's been rough, and the levels of violence are up, and the sectarian quality of the violence is particularly acute and disturbing," he said at a news briefing.
"This is reality catching up with Rumsfeld and the Pentagon," said Michael O'Hanlon, a military analyst at the Brookings Institution.
In a grim revelation, the report cited the Baghdad coroner's office stating that it received 1,600 bodies in June and more than 1,800 in July, of which 90 percent were assessed to be the result of executions.
Moreover, the report said, the revenge killings perpetrated by Sunni and Shiite death squads are spreading outside the Iraqi capital into the far reaches of the country, from Basra in the south to Mosul and Kirkuk in the north. Iran and Syria are actively supporting forces fueling the unrest among religious factions, it said.
"Sustained ethno-sectarian violence is the greatest threat to security and stability in Iraq," the report said. "Conditions that could lead to civil war exist in Iraq," it said, while maintaining that civil war can still be prevented. "Coalition forces and the ISF [Iraqi Security Forces] are responding by increased targeting of both Sunni and Shi'a death squads."
The report, the Pentagon's latest quarterly update on security in Iraq, mandated by Congress, is striking for its realism, defense experts said. It follows last month's dire testimony before Congress by two top American generals, including Gen. John P. Abizaid, the senior U.S. commander in the Middle East, who said sectarian violence in Iraq is worse than ever before and could lead to civil war.
Overall, the number of weekly attacks in Iraq escalated to nearly 800, the highest level since the Pentagon began gathering the statistics in April 2004, the report said. Statistics collected by defense experts, however, indicate that the level is higher than at any time since the U.S.-led invasion overthrew the Saddam Hussein government in April 2003.
"The message is more unambiguously bad because the data is bad, and there is no smoke screen to hide behind that the [Iraqi] elections will turn things around, or the training of Iraqi security forces will turn things," O'Hanlon said.
The 63-page report defines the "core conflict in Iraq" now as a struggle between Sunnis and Shiites in which "death squads and terrorists are locked in mutually reinforcing cycles of sectarian strife, with Sunni and Shi'a extremists each portraying themselves as defenders of their respective sectarian groups." Meanwhile, it says, "the Sunni Arab insurgency remains potent and viable."
Attacks increased in all categories from mid-May to mid-August, the period covered by the report, and the proportion of attacks directed against civilians rose "substantially" from 11 percent in April to 15 percent in June. The report covered only part of August, when thousands more U.S. and Iraqi troops reinforced operations in Baghdad that U.S. commanders say have helped quell the violence in the capital.
Congressional Democrats seized on the report as evidence of a bankrupt Bush administration strategy in Iraq.
"Failed Republican policies have left America bogged down in Iraq, with our military stretched thin and less able to fight and win the war on terror," said Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.).
Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the administration has not provided "the real resources, in terms of both military and civilian advisers, nor real dollars to reconstruct and help Iraq emerge from this period of instability."
Reed added: "We will not abandon our brave troops, nor can we afford to abandon Iraq. But we also can't afford to go along with the Bush administration's failed policies any longer."