By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 16, 2006
American troops face "significant challenges" in western Iraq's volatile Anbar region -- the deadliest province for U.S. forces -- but military efforts there are secondary to the priority of quelling sectarian unrest in Baghdad, the second-ranking U.S. commander in Iraq said yesterday.
"Al Anbar today is a supporting effort to what we're doing in Baghdad," Lt. Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, commander of Multinational Corps-Iraq, said in a videoconference with Pentagon reporters. "Baghdad is our main effort right now," he said, explaining why a battalion of U.S. troops was recently moved from Anbar to Baghdad.
On a day of sober talk about Iraq, Chiarelli also issued a dire warning on the risks of pulling out U.S. troops and allowing the country to slide into civil war, drawing an analogy from the 1980s Iran-Iraq war to suggest the loss of life from such a conflict could be staggering.
President Bush acknowledged serious problems in both Anbar and Baghdad yesterday, revealing that U.S. and Iraqi forces are constructing an earthen berm around the capital city of 5 million people and reinforcing checkpoints to try to stop the inflow of insurgent bombs.
Bush said he had hoped U.S. commanders would be able to reduce U.S. troop levels in Iraq, currently at about 140,000, until violence surged in Baghdad in June and July.
Anbar, Bush said, is "a dangerous place . . . a place where al-Qaeda is really trying to root themselves." But he rejected any suggestion that U.S. military had failed in the Sunni Arab insurgent stronghold. "This business about . . . 'Anbar is lost' is just not the case," Bush said.
Implicit in Chiarelli's remarks on Anbar was the idea that, given limited overall troop numbers in Iraq, American commanders must make difficult trade-offs as they concentrate forces in one troubled region at a time. "There's not a commander in the world who wouldn't say he could use more forces," he said.
Anbar has emerged as Iraq's most violent province, followed by the far smaller but more densely populated province of Baghdad. More than 30 percent of all attacks in Iraq from May to early August took place in Anbar, slightly more than in Baghdad, which ranked second for daily attacks, according to a Pentagon report released this month. More than 900 U.S. troops have been killed in Anbar since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, compared with more than 600 in Baghdad, according to the Web site iCasualties.org.
Chiarelli said he agreed with a classified intelligence report on Anbar that surfaced in the media this week, which concluded U.S. forces had fought to a military stalemate in Anbar as political and economic conditions there deteriorated. The report, by Col. Pete Devlin, intelligence officer for the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, is "right on target," he said.
"I don't believe there is any military strategy alone . . . that will create the conditions for victory," Chiarelli said. "We need the political support. We need economic support in al-Anbar," especially jobs for disgruntled young men, he said. The U.S. military will not abandon Anbar and is working to step up recruiting of Iraqi security forces there and improve their literacy, he said.
But asked for his reaction to the report's conclusion that another full U.S. ground division -- about 10,000 troops -- is needed to achieve success in Anbar, Chiarelli stated: "That's Pete's opinion." Troop levels in Anbar are appropriate, he said, "given conditions in Baghdad."
U.S. and Iraqi military operations reduced sectarian attacks in August in Baghdad neighborhoods, Chiarelli said, although he did not provide any statistics. Among the biggest problems, he said, are car bombs or other spectacular attacks that then prompt Shiite death squads to torture and execute Iraqis who are "picked off the streets, sometimes from lists."
Yet he warned that if a U.S. withdrawal led to civil war, the casualties would be far worse.
"If we're not successful . . . and Iraq would descend into civil war, the lens we look at and think about the casualties that could occur in that civil war may be totally different," he said, recalling his visit Thursday to an Iran-Iraq war battlefield on Iraq's southeastern border, where by official counts a million people perished in the 1980s.