Top U.S. Officers See Mixed Results From Iraq 'Surge'

"On a bad day, I actually fly Baghdad just to reassure myself that life still goes on," says Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, on a helicopter. (By Ann Scott Tyson -- The Washington Post)
By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 22, 2007

BAGHDAD, April 21 -- Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said the ongoing increase of nearly 30,000 U.S. troops in the country has achieved "modest progress" but has also met with setbacks such as a rise in devastating suicide bombings and other problems that leave uncertain whether his counterinsurgency strategy will ultimately succeed.

Assessing the first two months of the U.S. and Iraqi plan to pacify the capital, senior American commanders -- including Petraeus; Adm. William J. Fallon, head of U.S. forces in the Middle East; Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, commander of military operations in Iraq; and top regional commanders -- see mixed results. They said that while an increase in U.S. and Iraqi troops has improved security in Baghdad and Anbar province, attacks have risen sharply elsewhere. Critical now, they said in interviews this week, is for Iraqi leaders to forge the political compromises needed for long-term stability.

The commanders search for signs of success. On Friday night at dusk, Petraeus boarded a helicopter to look for scenes of normalcy and progress from above the maelstrom of the capital.

"On a bad day, I actually fly Baghdad just to reassure myself that life still goes on," he said, leaning back and propping his legs on the seat in front of him.

The aircraft banked right and Petraeus caught sight of a patch of relative calm. "He's actually watering the grass!" Petraeus said with a laugh, peering down at a man tending a soccer field, with children playing nearby.

Seconds later, the aircraft pivoted again, exposing boarded-up shops on a deserted, trash-strewn street. A bit farther, along the Tigris River, a hulking pile of twisted steel came into view -- the remains of the Sarafiya bridge, blown up April 12 amid a series of spectacular and deadly suicide bombings.

"That's a setback," Petraeus said, his voice lower. "That breaks your heart."

And so it went, all across the city. Directing the pilot to "break left" or "roll out," he scanned the landscape for even tiny improvements -- a pile of picked-up trash, an Iraqi police car out on patrol, a short line at one gas station -- as if gathering mental ammunition for the next wave of Baghdad carnage. An amusement park, its rides lit up, merited a full circle.

"We have certainly pulled neighborhoods back from the brink," Petraeus said, comparing the signs of revitalization now to his initial shock at the stark deterioration of parts of the capital upon his arrival in February.

So far, the deployment of additional troops in Baghdad is only 60 percent complete, and incoming units in many parts of the city are still conducting initial, labor-intensive operations to "clear" neighborhoods before setting up patrol bases, a pillar of Petraeus's counterinsurgency plan. Iraq's security forces have contributed the nine battalions pledged for the Baghdad operations, and rotate those forces every 90 days.

The bases -- which so far include 21 combat outposts and 26 joint security stations run together with Iraqi forces -- are a key building block in the effort to increase security for Baghdad residents. Another part of the strategy is to wall off communities along their traditional boundaries to control population access and prevent attacks.

"That's part of the concrete caterpillar," Petraeus said, pointing out a barrier going up in a neighborhood in west Baghdad. "That market was shut completely down when I took command -- now it has 200 shops," he said.

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