By ROBERT H. REID
The Associated Press
Saturday, September 8, 2007; 10:24 PM
BAGHDAD -- The U.S. military buildup has brought some relief from bombs and bullets to Baghdad's shattered neighborhoods. But it has failed so far to reach its overarching purpose: getting Iraqis to agree to the political compromises that Washington consider crucial for any lasting stability.
That mix of cautious hope and deepening frustration _ cited by U.S. officials and reinforced by recent events _ will be among the key sticking points this week as Congress judges the American military surge and what to do next.
The pumped-up troop presence that began early this year was designed to ease the sectarian slaughter in Baghdad so that religious and ethnic-based parties could agree on how to share power in the new Iraq. Instead of coming together, Iraq's Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds appear to be drifting farther apart and adding ever more complications to Washington's eventual goal of scaling down its record-high military presence.
Evidence is everywhere. Neighborhoods in the capital are fragmented into Sunni and Shiite enclaves. Major factions from both groups have bolted Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's tottering national government. Both the Shiite and Sunni communities _ armed groups and political parties alike _ are riddled with rivalries and competing poles of power.
Shiites fought Shiites last month in Karbala and up to 52 people died. Sunnis who once attacked Americans are turning their guns on fellow Sunnis loyal to al-Qaida ideology. Sunni politicians are deeply divided on whether to return to the Shiite-led government.
But beyond these high-profile signals of discord, deeper worries lurk.
Many Iraqis, bitter and traumatized, complain they don't feel any of the promised effects of improved security _ which were supposed to include a boost for the nation's crippled economy and more attention on fixing such daily woes as chronic power outages and water cuts.
Perceptions are crucial to building confidence in a political system that can lead the country to stability.
"The general situation is still like it was before, with some slight improvement in recent months," said Raed Fawzi, who sells men's clothing in a mostly Shiite area of east Baghdad. "But in general, there is no promising progress."
That's not likely to be the message that U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and the top commander Gen. David Petraeus will deliver to Congress. They are expected to acknowledge the gravity of Iraq's security and political crisis, but argue for more time by pointing to favorable trends.
Some progress is clear. But statistics themselves present a mixed picture of conditions in Iraq.
U.S. combat deaths are down from last spring. In August, at least 83 U.S. soldiers died in Iraq compared with more than 100 a month between April and the end of June.
U.S. officials also say sectarian killings in Baghdad have dropped by more than 50 percent from a high point last winter.
But civilian deaths nationwide rose last month to their second-highest level this year _ at least 1,809 according to an Associated Press count.
About 4.4 million Iraqis _ out of a prewar population of 26 million _ have fled their homes to escape the violence, half to neighboring countries such as Syria and Jordan, according to the International Organization for Migration. Another 60,000 more flee every month.
They leave behind a Baghdad radically altered from before the war, when Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds and Christians lived side-by-side. Now, neighborhoods are calm only after their minority community has fled. Armed neighborhood men keep outsiders away.
"No one has control of Baghdad _ not the U.S. Army, not the militias," said Nazer al-Shimeri, a Sunni. "The situation in Baghdad is unclear. Iraqi families are in a total dilemma."
Yet that doesn't mean the troop buildup is lacking some successes.
Since the last of the U.S. reinforcements hit the streets in June, American forces have moved to secure routes into Baghdad and curb the flow of car bombs and fighters. American soldiers also swept through Baqouba, 35 miles north of the capital, to drive out al-Qaida.
Those operations appear to have reduced the high-profile car bombings in the capital. U.S. commanders maintain that a more robust U.S. presence has given more Iraqis confidence to resist the gunmen who ruled their lives.
Senior commanders also insist al-Qaida in Iraq, the Sunni extremist group branded "enemy No. 1," is on the run. But analysts fear that once the American troops have gone, Shiite militias and Sunni gunmen will reappear.
On Thursday, a panel of retired senior U.S. military and police officers said Iraq's security forces would be unable to take control of the whole country over the next 18 months.
"No military effort can be sustained without major progress on the political front, which the surge was supposed to bring about in the first place, but hasn't," said Joost Hiltermann, Middle East director of the International Crisis Group.
In a two-page letter to U.S. forces in Iraq, dated Friday, Petraeus acknowledged that the troop buildup has "not worked out as we had hoped" because of the lack of political reconciliation in Iraq.
The White House applauded a promise by some Kurdish, Sunni and Shiite leaders to work toward some "benchmark" legislation supported by Washington, including a plan to share Iraq's oil wealth.
But Sunni politicians have yanked their support for the embattled government of al-Maliki. Without full Sunni participation, there can be no broad public backing for any reforms.
Sunni politicians believe the Shiite religious parties that now dominate the government have little interest in meaningful accommodation and have tacitly allowed Shiite militias to drive Sunnis from their homes to solidify Shiite control of the capital.
In turn, Shiites believe many Sunnis will never give up violence until they regain the power they once enjoyed under Saddam Hussein.
While politicians squabble in Baghdad, much of the Shiite south _ with 30 percent of the population and most of the oil wealth _ has fallen under the influence of Shiite militias, some with close ties to Shiite-dominated Iran.
With the national government in deadlock, U.S. officials have begun encouraging reconciliation at the local level. The model is Anbar, the vast Sunni province where tribal sheiks turned against al-Qaida in Iraq and sought cooperation with the Americans.
The Sunni revolt against al-Qaida led to a dramatic improvement in security in Anbar cities such as Fallujah and Ramadi. Iraqis who had been sitting on the sidelines _ or planting roadside bombs to kill Americans _ have now joined with U.S. forces to hunt down al-Qaida in Iraq, whose links to Osama bin Laden's terror network are unclear.
Still, Anbar is not secure, accounting for 18 percent of the U.S. deaths in Iraq so far this year _ making it the second deadliest province after Baghdad. Four Marines were killed in Anbar on Thursday.
Nonetheless, U.S. officials now speak of exporting the "Anbar model" elsewhere, including the Shiite heartland of the south, where militias hold sway.
The U.S. has been anxious to recruit tribal fighters to compensate for the weakness in the Iraqi army and police _ both infiltrated by Shiite militias and Sunni militants.
"I don't expect any improvement in the deteriorating security situation in Iraq as long as political rivalries and militias are the main factors that govern Iraq," said Farhan Ahmed al-Khalidi, a 33-year-old Shiite. "Iraq will remain unstable."