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Commanders in Iraq See 'Surge' Into '08

U.S. Marines and Iraqi soldiers patrol in Sadr City, a large Shiite district in Baghdad. Two U.S. soldiers were killed southeast of the capital yesterday.
U.S. Marines and Iraqi soldiers patrol in Sadr City, a large Shiite district in Baghdad. Two U.S. soldiers were killed southeast of the capital yesterday. (By Hadi Mizban -- Associated Press)

"What we had been doing for 3 1/2 years didn't keep up with the sectarian violence spreading so swiftly," said Maj. Gen. Joseph F. Fil Jr., the senior U.S. commander for Baghdad. The new approach "will take every bit of the five brigades" of combat troops now flowing in as reinforcements in the city of 6 million people, he said.

"It's fairly obvious that we transferred out too soon," said Col. Bryan Roberts, who commands a U.S. cavalry brigade in central Baghdad.

The limited U.S. troop presence was one reason that sectarian killings soared out of control in Baghdad after the February 2006 bombing of an important Shiite mosque in Samarra. That spurred what U.S. officers now call the sectarian cleansing of most of eastern Baghdad and large swaths of the west -- as Shiites forced Sunnis out of all but a few enclaves -- a movement that was arrested only with the troop increase this February.

"The sectarian cleansing is pretty much done on the east side" of Baghdad, said a U.S. military official. But since the influx of U.S. and Iraqi forces began, he said, "for the most part the Shia expansion is frozen where it is."

Another vital aspect of the strategy to secure Baghdad, commanders said, is to array more forces on the periphery of the capital to block Sunni insurgents and Shiite militiamen from using the outskirts for staging attacks.

"The Baghdad belts or support zones" have "always been the generator of violence in Baghdad," Odierno said. As a result, he plans to allocate about half of the final two incoming brigades in outlying areas.

Because Iraqi forces are concentrated inside the city, fewer are available to go to the outskirts to partner with U.S. troops, who must cover large areas, he said. In western Baghdad's Mansour district, for example, about 3,000 U.S. and Iraqi troops are covering an area with 300,000 people. "That's huge," said Lt. Col. Dale Kuehl, the U.S. commander for the area.

Still, the decision to place U.S. troops in both Baghdad and the outskirts has led to concern among some officers that their forces will be spread too thin. "If we lose Baghdad, it's game over," said one officer. "We need to concentrate forces in Baghdad and be really ruthless in accepting risk elsewhere," he said.

U.S. commanders said they expected Sunni and Shiite fighters to try to counter the Baghdad strategy in part by staging attacks in other regions.

"They will try to do whatever they can in other cities to draw us out of Baghdad" using vehicle bomb attacks, Odierno said. The Sunni extremist group al-Qaeda in Iraq, for example, might try to establish a base where there are fewer U.S. troops, such as the northern city of Mosul, he said. "We are watching that very closely."

Al-Qaeda in Iraq fighters have recently staged attacks in the predominantly Shiite southern cities of Karbala and Najaf, prompting U.S. and Iraqi officials to launch an assessment of whether the Iraqi police and army have the capability they need to protect the Shiite shrines there, as well as in Samarra and Baghdad, Odierno said.

Diyala province, a demographically mixed area between Baghdad and Iran, has already experienced an upsurge in violence following what Odierno said was in influx in recent months of Shiite militiamen from Baghdad and al-Qaeda in Iraq fighters from Anbar province, a Sunni stronghold in the west of the country. The U.S. military had to dispatch an additional battalion to Diyala, and Odierno said he is considering sending another.

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