General May See Early Success in Iraq

An Iraqi soldier inspects the crater from an insurgent mortar strike on a rooftop observation post in Ramadi.
An Iraqi soldier inspects the crater from an insurgent mortar strike on a rooftop observation post in Ramadi. (By John Moore -- Getty Images)

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By Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The battle for Baghdad will start in mixed Sunni-Shiite neighborhoods chosen by military strategists as being the least likely to offer stiff resistance, raising the odds of early success, according to military planners and officials familiar with the thinking of the incoming Iraq commander, Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus.

But that could be followed by a sharp increase in violence as insurgents learn U.S. and Iraqi tactics, military officials said.

The general, whose Senate confirmation hearing is scheduled for this morning, plans to send all 17,500 additional U.S. troops ordered by President Bush into Baghdad, regardless of whether Iraqi army units join the fight as planned, according to officials familiar with his thinking. Anticipating an uneven performance by the Iraqi army, military planners are advocating using American force and funding quickly to establish early victories, both in improving security and showing economic progress.

Petraeus's appointment as the top U.S. commander comes at a key point in the war, when public support is lower than ever and the congressional debate is coming to a head. The general offered a harsh critique of U.S. mistakes in Iraq in written testimony submitted to the Senate yesterday, noting a range of ills that included poorly managed elections and inadequate reconstruction plans. Now, as military and political leaders tout Petraeus as the best man to salvage the Iraq effort, he is in the delicate position of wanting to show progress quickly without raising expectations too high.

"This will be a difficult mission and time is not on our side," he states in the written testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Petraeus will require his troops to operate and live among the population, hoping to safeguard security and economic gains for neighborhoods cleared of violence. Military experts say that violence could decrease through April and May but that once insurgents get a feel for U.S. and Iraqi army tactics, a new "fighting season" could begin in late spring -- triggering potential political problems for U.S. public support of the operation.

Perhaps most important, Army insiders say they expect Petraeus to show a very different style from his reserved predecessor, Gen. George W. Casey Jr. "You are going to see a much more active command style than Casey," said one officer who has worked with both men. "Petraeus will be out walking the streets, visiting units and firing up both his Iraqi and coalition forces with his personal attention."

Like every active-duty officer and Pentagon official interviewed for this article, he asked not to be identified by name, noting the sensitivity of the situation as Petraeus awaits confirmation. Also, this officer noted, Petraeus has shown that he can use sticks as well as carrots: "He is also willing to fire people."

Petraeus aims to fly to Iraq as soon as possible, partly because, as one officer put it, he sees signs that "everyone's going on hold" there now as they await his arrival.

The plan to bring security to Baghdad will begin with the deployment of U.S. and Iraqi troops into nine sectors across the city. For years, most U.S. troops have lived on big "Forward Operating Bases." Petraeus plans to instead establish battalion command posts across the city. "I plan to ensure that some of our forces locate in the neighborhoods they protect," he said in his written statement.

People who have spoken with Petraeus recently said he believes that politicians and journalists have put too much emphasis on the increase in troop numbers and too little on his intention to use them differently. Their top priority will be protecting the Iraqi population, following counterinsurgency doctrine laid out in a new Army manual, which he oversaw, that says "the people are the prize."

The plan calls for large numbers of Iraqi and U.S. forces to flow into a targeted area like an ocean tide, temporarily overwhelming militia and insurgent fighters. But unlike in the past, when the tide goes out, it will leave behind a substantial residual force of Iraq army and police units, backed up by mobile U.S. troops. In this way, planners hope to "hold" neighborhoods rather than just "clear" them of the enemy.


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