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Military Reports Slow Progress in Securing Baghdad

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 5, 2007

U.S. and Iraqi troops have pushed insurgents and other fighters out of about a third of Baghdad's neighborhoods under a three-month-old plan to pacify the city of 6 million people, according to a U.S. military report released yesterday.

In some parts of the city, military operations to gain control over contested areas have taken longer than projected before the Baghdad security plan started in February, both because of the number of U.S. and Iraqi troops available and the need to adjust to a constantly shifting insurgency, U.S. military officials said.

"One of our planning assumptions was that the Iraqi security forces would be able to hold [territory] in all areas, and we are finding that is not always the case," said Lt. Col. Scott Bleichwehl, a spokesman for the U.S. military command in Baghdad. "We are having to go back in and re-clear some areas," he said, adding that "slow progress is still progress."

The report by U.S. brigade and battalion commanders in Baghdad covers the last week of May and reflects a snapshot of the stage of operations in each of the city's 457 neighborhoods. It is "an internal tool" to track progress on a weekly basis and does not represent a formal assessment of the Baghdad security plan, Bleichwehl said. The report was first made public yesterday by the New York Times.

For each weekly report, the commanders gauge which neighborhoods fall into four distinct phases of military operations: disrupt, clear, control and retain.

As of the end of May, 156 neighborhoods were in the "disrupt" phase, which means to keep insurgents off balance until a full military presence can be established. Areas in that phase include much of Sadr City, where U.S. troops are conducting raids against militia leaders but have lacked manpower to sweep the large Shiite district of 2 million people.

An additional 155 neighborhoods were in the "clear" phase, in which the military goes block to block looking for weapons and fighters in order to eliminate resistance.

Commanders rated 128 neighborhoods as under "control," meaning U.S. and Iraqi forces could keep insurgents out and could protect the population. Eighteen neighborhoods were in the "retain" phase, which relies more heavily on Iraqi security forces and is aimed at ensuring that the area remains free of insurgents.

The overall picture created by the weekly reports tends to be "very conservative," said a U.S. military official who is familiar with them. "A brigade commander is very cautious in saying 'Yes, I have an area under control,' because if something bad happens in the next couple of weeks he looks very foolish," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to give an interview.

When the U.S. military began planning late last year for an increase of about 28,700 troops in Iraq -- including about five brigades, or 17,500 combat troops, in Baghdad -- they estimated that operations to "clear" the capital would be completed by the end of July, the official said. Since then, key assumptions of the initial plan have changed, he said.

The U.S. brigades did not flow into Baghdad as quickly or in the same concentrations as had been anticipated before the operations began, as some were diverted to volatile regions in the city's outskirts. More than one of the Army's Stryker battalions planned for Baghdad has been sent to help combat escalating violence in neighboring Diyala province. As a result, those highly mobile battalions were not available for their original assignment of conducting manpower-intensive clearing operations in Baghdad.

Some clearing operations also took longer than planned, officials said. In Baghdad's western district of Mansour, an operation intended to last two weeks took five weeks -- not because of the degree of resistance, but in part because the intelligence available justified a more thorough search, they said.

In addition, it has taken the military longer to achieve control in some districts in western Baghdad, such as al-Rasheed and Amiriyah, because of ongoing insurgent resistance, Bleichwehl said.

Iraqi security forces have also made slower-than-expected progress in some cases. Most Iraqi battalions arrived in Baghdad lacking full manpower. Moreover, their effectiveness is reduced because of a program to rotate the units out of Baghdad and back to their home regions every 90 days.

U.S. commanders say sectarian agendas have hurt the reliability of Iraqi security forces in some cases. Distrust of the predominantly Shiite Iraqi police is so high in some Sunni districts of Baghdad that they cannot set foot in the areas except under U.S. military escort. "It is very hard to move to 'retain' without Iraqi security forces in the numbers and reliability we want," said the military official familiar with the weekly reports.

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