By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 15, 2007
The Pentagon yesterday released its bleakest assessment of Iraq yet, reporting record levels of violence and hardening sectarian divisions in the last quarter of 2006 as rival Sunni and Shiite militias waged campaigns of "sectarian cleansing" that forced as many as 9,000 civilians to flee the country each month.
Weekly attacks in Iraq rose to more than 1,000 during the period and average daily casualties increased to more than 140, with Iraqi civilians bearing the brunt of the violence -- nearly 100 killed or wounded a day, according to statistics in the Pentagon's latest congressionally required quarterly report on security in Iraq.
Those figures may represent as little as half of the true casualties because they include only violence observed by or reported to the U.S.-led military coalition, the report acknowledged. It cited a United Nations estimate, based on hospital reports, that more than 6,000 Iraqi civilians were killed or wounded in December alone.
Shiite militias and Sunni insurgents vying to establish strongholds are driving the strife, especially in Baghdad, where they forcibly displaced residents and fueled a record 45 attacks a day, the report said. Unlike previous reports, the one released yesterday depicted some aspects of the Iraq conflict as a civil war.
"Some elements of the situation in Iraq are properly descriptive of a 'civil war,' including the hardening of ethno-sectarian identities and mobilization, the changing character of the violence, and population displacements," it said, echoing the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq released in January.
"Illegally armed groups are engaged in a self-sustaining cycle of politically motivated violence, using tactics that include indiscriminate bombing, murder, and indirect fire to intimidate people and stoke sectarian conflict," the Pentagon report said.
The report covers the period immediately before the U.S. military began increasing troop levels in Iraq by more than 25,000 to try to provide more protection to Iraqi civilians, particularly in Baghdad. Referring to the current security operations in Baghdad, the report said that, although "early signs are promising," it is too soon to determine "whether the new approach is succeeding or requires further adjustments."
Efforts by the Iraqi government at political reconciliation -- without which U.S. commanders say the military strategy cannot succeed -- had produced "little progress" in late 2006 with "no effect on quelling violence," the report said. Public confidence in the government remained low, with the population split on whether the government is moving in the right direction, and two-thirds expressing a belief that conditions for peace are worsening.
The report also indicated a delay in the coalition's effort to hand over security responsibility to Iraqi provinces, which U.S. commanders had previously said would be completed by the end of this year. The nation's second most violent province, the predominantly Sunni region of Anbar in western Iraq, will not be transferred to Iraqi control until early 2008, the report said.
Part of the difficulty in making the transition to Iraqi control lies in weaknesses in the Iraqi security forces, the report indicated. Although nearly 329,000 Iraqi police officers and soldiers had been trained as of February, the number present for duty is only about half or two-thirds of that total. Security forces, while improving in some areas, remain hampered by militia infiltration, logistical deficiencies and corruption.
Penetration by militias and criminal groups is also a growing problem among the corrections workers in Iraqi detention facilities, the report said. Detention centers in Iraq have substandard facilities and do a poor job in tracking detainees, it stated. Scores of the jails are overcrowded, with one housing three detainees for every bed.
The report described some improvement in Iraq's economy, although it said progress is constrained by security problems. The World Bank projected that the 2006 gross domestic project reached $48.5 billion, rising 3 percent over the previous year's.
However, it said inflation in 2006 averaged 50 percent, driven by fuel shortages.