By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 19, 2006
The Pentagon said yesterday that violence in Iraq soared this fall to its highest level on record and acknowledged that anti-U.S. fighters have achieved a "strategic success" by unleashing a spiral of sectarian killings by Sunni and Shiite death squads that threatens Iraq's political institutions.
In its most pessimistic report yet on progress in Iraq, the Pentagon described a nation listing toward civil war, with violence at record highs of 959 attacks per week, declining public confidence in government and "little progress" toward political reconciliation.
"The violence has escalated at an unbelievably rapid pace," said Marine Lt. Gen. John F. Sattler, director of strategic plans and policy for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who briefed journalists on the report. "We have to get ahead of that violent cycle, break that continuous chain of sectarian violence. . . . That is the premier challenge facing us now."
The rapid spread of violence this year has thrown the government's future into jeopardy, Pentagon officials said.
"The tragedy of Iraq is that in February in Samarra, the insurgents achieved what one could call a partial strategic success -- namely, to trigger what we've been dealing with ever since, which is a cycle of sectarian violence, that indeed is shaking the institutions," Peter W. Rodman, assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, said at the briefing.
He was referring to the Feb. 22 bombing of the Askariya mosque, a holy Shiite shrine, in the ethnically mixed city of Samarra north of Baghdad.
Rodman said insurgent efforts to derail the political process, which he called "the strategic prize," had previously failed. But in 2006, he said, insurgents succeeded in hampering the new government from "getting on its feet."
The 50-page Pentagon report, mandated quarterly by Congress, also stated for the first time that the Shiite militia of radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has replaced al-Qaeda as "the most dangerous" force propelling Iraq toward civil war, as Shiite militants kill more civilians than do terrorists.
And this report, unlike the prior one, omitted any explicit statement that Iraq is not in a civil war. Sunni and Shiite militias, aided at times by government forces, are gaining legitimacy by protecting neighborhoods and providing relief supplies, it said.
"The situation in Iraq is far more complex than the term 'civil war' implies," said the report, titled "Measuring Stability and Security in Iraq." "Conditions that could lead to civil war do exist," it said, but added that the Iraqi government, backed by the U.S.-led coalition, "could mitigate further movement toward civil war and curb sectarian violence."
Driven by sectarian fighting, and a Ramadan surge, attack levels in Iraq hit record highs in all categories nationwide as the number of U.S. and coalition casualties surged 32 percent from mid-August to mid-November, compared with the previous three months, the report said. Over the same period, the number of attacks per week rose 22 percent, from 784 to 959.
Iraqi civilian casualties also increased, "almost entirely the result of murders and executions," the report said. Since January, before the mosque bombing, ethno-sectarian executions rose from 180 to 1,028 in October; ethno-sectarian incidents rose from 63 to 996 over the same period.
The escalation of violence in Iraq comes despite increased troop levels -- including a higher-than-anticipated U.S. force level of 140,000 troops and a growing contingent of Iraqi security forces, which this month are projected to reach the goal of 325,000 trained and equipped.
The report noted problems with Iraqi forces, however, saying the number of soldiers and police actually "present for duty" is far lower than the number trained and equipped.
Subtracting those Iraqi forces killed and wounded, and those who have quit the force, only 280,000 are "available for duty," Sattler said. About 30 percent of that number are "on leave" at a time, he said, leaving fewer than 196,000 on the job.
Iraqi police forces in particular are increasingly corrupt, according to the report, which says that some police in Baghdad have supported Shiite death squads. The police "facilitated freedom of movement and provided advance warning of upcoming operations," it said. "This is a major reason for the increased levels of murders and executions."
As a result of mass defections or police units being pulled off duty, the number of Iraqi police battalions rated as having "lead responsibility" in their areas fell from six to two, the report said, although officials said that number has since increased.
The Iraqi army has steadily increased the number of its battalions in the lead, from 57 in May to 91 in November, although some units have experienced high attrition when ordered to deploy to different regions of Iraq, such as Baghdad and Anbar.
Sattler implied that no number of U.S. or Iraqi troops would be great enough to quash the revenge killings. "I don't know how many forces you could push into a country, either U.S. or coalition or Iraqi forces, that could cover the entire country, where these death squads wouldn't find somebody," he said.
Indeed, the report documented that major U.S. and Iraqi military operations in the fall did not quell sectarian violence in Baghdad. Attacks dipped in August, but rebounded strongly in September after death squads adapted to the increased U.S. and Iraqi presence.
Asked in light of that whether they supported a surge of thousands of U.S. troops into Baghdad, one of several options under consideration by a White House review of Iraq strategy, Sattler and Rodman declined to offer an opinion. The report said the U.S. military plans to steadily pull out of cities and consolidate its bases. Meanwhile, the remaining 16 of Iraq's 18 provinces are expected to be placed under Iraqi government control in 2007.
At the same time, Iraqi public concern about a civil war has grown, while confidence in the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has dropped significantly as his efforts at political reconciliation have shown "little progress," the report said.
Nationwide, 60 percent of Iraqi people expressed a perception of worsening security conditions.
The sectarian violence has also led to an increasing number of internal refugees, as about 460,000 people have been displaced since February, the report said, citing Iraqi statistics. The United Nations estimates that more than 3,000 Iraqis are leaving the country each day.