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.
The first big question will be whether Iraqi forces show up as promised. Early indications are good, said one person familiar with Iraqi troop movements over the past several days. But they will have to be monitored constantly. The next question will be whether the Iraqi forces actually do anything, or just pretend to comply with American requests. The third will be whether they remain to finish the job, or pull out before the campaign is really completed.
The next big question is how the militia of Moqtada al-Sadr, the radical Shiite cleric who is anti-American and a major power in the Iraqi government, will respond to the new U.S. troop presence on the streets of Baghdad. Sadr's Mahdi Army, the single most powerful Shiite militia, has been implicated in death squad activities. "Actions taken in Sadr City will have to be carefully considered," Petraeus says in his statement, referring to Sadr's stronghold in eastern Baghdad.
U.S. military intelligence officers believe that Sadr initially won't confront the new U.S. troops. "I think the Mahdi Army will lay low where we are in present in strength," one intelligence officer predicted yesterday.
The combination of factors -- a militia response of waiting out the U.S. campaign, combined with initial operations in easier areas -- should cause a reduction in violence early in the campaign, said one Army insider. But he predicted that any drop would be short-lived.
By about March, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said recently, U.S. commanders should have a good assessment of whether the Iraqi government is able to deliver on its promises. He said that deployment of all five extra U.S. brigades in the pipeline will depend on Iraqi performance.
But people familiar with Petraeus's thinking say that he is likely to take a different course, ignoring any Iraqi shortcomings and asking for all five brigades of planned U.S. reinforcements, figuring out that a true test of the strategy of clearing and holding, and of protecting the citizenry of Baghdad, will require all those 17,500 troops. "To do what has to be done, they all have to go," said a senior defense official who met last week with Petraeus.
During the first months of the campaign, Petraeus is likely to be wary of declarations of success or calls from Capitol Hill to begin curtailing the troop increase. "Gaining the trust of the populace is going to take more than 30 to 90 days, which means the timeline for obtaining real results are out of sync with what the Hill and the U.S. populace is looking for in the way of results," a strategist for the Joint Staff said.
By April or early May, American planners hope that the levels of violence will begin to go down. But they also fear that this is the point at which the campaign could begin to go quietly sour. Insurgents and militias will have had time to study the new U.S. approaches and determine where the points of vulnerability exist.
By June, all the troops in the planned increase should be operating in Baghdad, with U.S. forces in the city having increased from 24,000 to about 41,000, and Iraqi troop levels rising from 42,000 to about 50,000.
By mid-summer, officers involved in planning said, Petraeus hopes to be able to point to a sustained decrease in violence.
Yet summer may bring the most dangerous point of the entire campaign, especially if U.S. forces begin to withdraw, warned retired Marine Col. Gary Anderson, who has advised top U.S. officials on insurgencies. He predicted that Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias will "wait out the surge, falling upon the Iraqi security forces when the Americans start leaving, causing a Tet-like effect where the light at the end of the tunnel is an oncoming train."