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Intensified Combat on Streets Likely

By Thomas E. Ricks and Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, January 11, 2007

President Bush's plan to send tens of thousands of U.S. and Iraqi reinforcements to Baghdad to jointly confront Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias is likely to touch off a more dangerous phase of the war, featuring months of fighting in the streets of the Iraqi capital, current and former military officials warned.

"The terrorists and insurgents in Iraq are without conscience, and they will make the year ahead bloody and violent," the president said last night in explaining his revised approach. "Even if our new strategy works exactly as planned, deadly acts of violence will continue -- and we must expect more Iraqi and American casualties."

The prospect of a more intense battle in the Iraqi capital could put U.S. military commanders in exactly the sort of tough urban fight that war planners strove to avoid during the spring 2003 invasion of the country. The plan to partner U.S. and Iraqi units may compel American soldiers to rely on questionable Iraqi army and police forces as never before. And while the president insisted there is no timetable associated with the troop increase, military officials said sustaining it for more than a few months would place a major new strain on U.S. forces that already are feeling burdened by an unexpectedly long and difficult war.

Most of all, the White House's insistence on confronting all insurgents and militias, both Sunni and Shiite, may mean that the U.S. military will wind up fighting the Mahdi Army of radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. That militia is estimated by some U.S. intelligence officials to have grown over the past year to about 60,000 fighters, and some in the Pentagon consider it more militarily effective than the Iraqi army. Fighting it could resemble on a citywide scale the sharp combat that took place this week along central Baghdad's Haifa Street, in which U.S. jets and attack helicopters conducted airstrikes just north of the U.S. Embassy in the protected Green Zone.

"There will be more violence than usual because of the surge, and a surge with more casualties plays up on the international stage," said a senior Army official. Sadr "is going to have to make a choice, and if he decides on a confrontation, it will be pretty significant," added a senior Pentagon official.

Sadr is one of the most powerful figures in the Iraqi government, and he has forced it and the U.S. military to back down in the past. Yet if the Mahdi Army is not confronted, the entire offensive may falter and the sectarian conflict may intensify, because Sunnis will feel it is just one more way of attacking them while letting Shiite death squads go free, military experts said. "If our troops do not enter Sadr City, they belittle the notion of a surge because they would leave a leading militia unscathed," said Patrick Cronin of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a defense think tank.

The last time the U.S. military fought both Sunni and Shiite elements in Iraq was the spring of 2004, which became one of the most difficult times in the war. U.S. commanders were stunned to face a two-front conflict against Sunni insurgents in Anbar province and Shiites in Baghdad and across a broad swath of south-central Iraq. Troops from the Army's 1st Cavalry Division fighting in Sadr's stronghold of about 2 million Shiites in eastern Baghdad became enmeshed in a series of clashes resembling the movie "Black Hawk Down." Sadr's militias besieged isolated U.S. patrols and took over police stations, schools and municipal buildings.

An Army officer who recently commanded a battalion in Baghdad predicted last night that the plan would fail because Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his government "will do things to maintain protection" of Sadr's forces. He also dismissed as "happy talk" the president's notion that the predominantly Shiite Iraqi army and police could reassure pro-insurgent Sunni neighborhoods by conducting foot patrols through them.

Bush said it is now clear that there have not been sufficient troops in Baghdad, and that part of the difference in this approach is that the plan will be adequately resourced. Yet the total number of U.S. troops in Iraq after the planned increase will be about 153,000, less than the peak of about 165,000 in December 2005. Military experts last night wondered, as one said, how a "thin green line" of 17,500 additional soldiers in Baghdad could affect the security situation in a city where many of the 5 million residents are hostile to the U.S. presence. "Too little, too late -- way too late," said retired Col. Jerry Durrant, who has worked as a trainer of Iraqi forces.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff have resisted Bush's push for more troops, according to officials familiar with internal deliberations, but recently gave in to the president's wishes. Bush said last night that top commanders reviewed the new plans to add a total of 21,500 Army and Marine forces in Baghdad and Anbar province and approved of them.

"The 'surge' is actually quite small," said retired Army Col. Andrew Bacevich, who compared it with the 206,000 additional troops that Gen. William Westmoreland requested in Vietnam in 1968. "In effect, Bush is counting on the Iraqis to pull our bacon out of the fire," Bacevich said, adding that there is no evidence that the Iraqi military and government are capable of doing so.

The plan calls for the Iraqi government to designate one overall commander for all Iraq army and police personnel in Baghdad. The city would be divided into nine sectors, each with an Iraqi commander and with a U.S. Army battalion assigned to it to support the Iraqi forces.

In the short to medium term, the U.S. military increase in Iraq will involve accelerating some troops into Iraq and extending the tours of others, creating an overlap that raises the overall troop level. At least one Army brigade not originally scheduled to rotate into Iraq -- the 2nd Brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division -- has begun moving into Iraq from Kuwait.

Four more Army brigades in the United States that are already part of the planned 2007 Iraq rotation are expected to deploy beginning in February, between two weeks and two months earlier than scheduled. In Iraq, three Army brigades will be extended past their scheduled one-year tours, in one instance for about four months. Meanwhile, a large Marine combat unit now in Anbar province will have its tour of duty extended.

In the longer term, sustaining elevated troop levels will probably require remobilization of Army National Guard and Army Reserve units. Senior Army officials said they were concerned that soldiers will have longer tours in the war zone or less time at home to see their families, train and repair equipment. Speeding up deployments also carries risks by curtailing time units have to train and receive equipment.

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