Officers Look Back For Clues To Future

By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, January 15, 2007

BAGHDAD, Jan. 14 -- When U.S. and Iraqi forces tried to secure his neighborhood of Dora in August, Ibrahim Abbas's 16-year-old son was kidnapped. In October, several months into the ambitious security plan, Sunni insurgents drove him and his family out of their house. Today, his son is still missing. And his house sits empty -- or so he thinks. Abbas, a teacher who now lives in another part of Baghdad, has yet to return to Dora.

"The problem is the American policy of protection. It's very wrong," he said, his face curling in frustration. "They should have engaged the people, to help protect their neighborhood. Nobody wants to leave his house empty."

As the Bush administration embarks on a major tactical shift, adding 21,500 U.S. troops in the hopes of calming sectarian tensions, the failure of the ongoing Baghdad security plan, Operation Together Forward, provides valuable lessons for the future. Yet it also raises questions about whether a temporary increase in U.S. troops can be effective in a war that is becoming more complex and unpredictable.

"This is a totally different kind of fight. It's not World War II, it's not Vietnam, it's not any of those," the former second-highest commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, said last month.

Since August, when a second phase of Operation Together Forward began, sectarian divisions have hardened. Militias have fragmented into smaller, deadlier gangs. Extremists are using hit-and-run tactics, snipers and sophisticated roadside bombs to kill U.S. troops at record levels. Baghdad has balkanized further into Shiite and Sunni Muslim enclaves, making the population more reliant on militias and insurgents for protection.

Meanwhile, the fragile Shiite-led unity government of Nouri al-Maliki is on shaky ground as it prepares to take control of military operations in Baghdad. Alienated Sunnis accuse Maliki of fortifying his Shiite brethren and of lacking the will or the capacity to build a nation that can accommodate all its religious and ethnic groups.

U.S. officials wonder whether Maliki can meet one of their key demands: that his Shiite-dominated security forces combat Shiite militias as vigorously as they battle Sunni insurgents. Maliki's political benefactor Moqtada al-Sadr, the radical Shiite cleric who heads the Mahdi Army, the largest and most violent militia, is stronger and more popular than ever. And increasingly, Maliki is acting more independently of his U.S. backers, demanding more command and control over Iraq's security.

Across Baghdad, Iraqis are asking questions whose answers will shape Iraq's fate this year. Will Maliki and U.S. forces confront Sadr? Is the United States training an Iraqi force that will take sides in the war? Can Maliki survive as Iraq's leader?

U.S. military commanders no longer speak of a military solution. In a climate where the enemy is harder to define, they speak of creating jobs and improving basic services to win over a disenchanted population and stop Iraqis from backing extremists. In interviews, U.S. commanders are now uttering a different mantra -- "counterinsurgency" -- a strategy that relies less on military force than on cultivating popular support.

"What we have to be able to do is protect the population," said Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, who replaced Chiarelli as the number two U.S. commander in Iraq last month. "We have not yet been able to do that."

Initial Drop in Violence

Protection has also been an objective of Operation Together Forward. The plan was to clear some of the capital's deadliest neighborhoods, virtually all of them majority-Sunni areas, through raids and house-to-house searches, with Iraqi troops taking the lead. Then Iraqi police would hold those areas, followed by efforts to rebuild the neighborhoods and restore basic services.

An additional 7,000 U.S. troops were funneled into Baghdad, bringing the total in the capital to 15,000. The Iraqi government promised to contribute six battalions, but sent only two, adding about 9,000 troops.

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