By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 18, 2007
Security is deteriorating in southern Iraq as rival Shiite militias vying for power have stepped up their attacks after moving out of Baghdad to avoid U.S.-led military operations, according to the latest quarterly Pentagon report on Iraq released yesterday.
"The security environment in southern Iraq took a notable turn for the worse in August" with the assassination of two governors, said the report, which covers June through August. "There may be retaliation and an increase in intra-Shi'a violence throughout the South," it said, whereas previously the violence was centered in the main southern city of Basra.
Iran has intensified its training and funding of the Shiite militia, and Iranian-influenced militias are believed to be responsible for killing the two governors, as well as for a nearly 40 percent increase in attacks using lethal weapons known as explosively formed projectiles, compared with the mid-February to mid-May period, the report said.
The growing violence in the south is one factor making it unlikely that Iraq's leaders -- hampered by a "zero sum" mentality -- will make headway in the fall on key political resolutions, the report concluded. "In the short term, Iraqi political leaders will likely be less concerned about reconciliation than with consolidating power and posturing for a future power struggle," it said.
Overall, the report detailed both progress and setbacks. It highlighted positive trends such as a recent nationwide drop in sectarian violence, high-profile bombings and total attacks -- albeit from the record-high of approximately 5,200 "enemy initiated" attacks in May. Total monthly attacks against U.S. and Iraqi forces and civilians fell to about 4,800 in July and to 3,500 in August, the report said, reflecting what it called "a substantial improvement in overall security."
Casualties rose from about 130 killed or wounded on average per day in June to nearly 150 a day in July and August, but that remains below the level of more than 150 a day in the previous quarter. Still, there was a significant increase in Iraqi civilians killed or wounded compared with U.S. and Iraqi forces from June to August, reflecting in part some massive bombings that the U.S. military attributed to the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq in remote parts of the country.
Baghdad remained the most violent part of Iraq when measured in attacks by province, with about 58 attacks there a day between early May and late July. Attacks fell sharply in the western Anbar province -- to about 10 a day compared with 25 a day between February and May -- as Sunni tribes stepped up efforts to expel al-Qaeda-affiliated insurgents and supply manpower for Iraqi security forces, part of a "bottom up" reconciliation effort that the report called the most promising trend in Iraq today.
But in another trend seen in earlier reports, attacks spread outside the Baghdad area, rising in neighboring Diyala and Salahuddin provinces, where security remains "fragile," as well as in some southern provinces, the report said.
Violence and instability in some southern provinces reflects primarily the growing strength in the region of the Mahdi Army or Jaish al-Mahdi (JAM), the militia of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, the report said.
"An increase in its militia members has emboldened JAM to increase the frequency and intensity of attacks on Coalition and Iraqi forces," the report said. "This influx has occurred as militant elements moved out of Baghdad to avoid FAQ-related operations," it said, referring to the Baghdad security plan, known in Arabic as Fardh al-Qanoon.
Moreover, the Pentagon assessment said the Mahdi Army reasserted itself in Qadisiyah province after coalition forces withdrew, illustrating how areas can revert to violence.
In Basra, the city through which 90 percent of Iraq's oil is exported, the report said that the expected continued reduction of British forces had led to insurgent groups "posturing themselves to control the city, where violence has increased due to the presence of multiple Shi'a militias -- most notably JAM and its splinter groups, the Badr Organization and the Fadilah Organization -- and criminal groups."
Meanwhile, the report stated that Iraqi security forces, though improving and maturing, remain hindered by sectarian infiltration. "Shi'a militia control over significant portions of southern Iraq and Baghdad competes with legitimate Iraqi forces for popular trust, and in some cases, causes increases in sectarian behavior by these security forces," the Pentagon found.
Amid uneven trends in security and the Iraqi government's "indecisiveness and inaction" on key political goals, the report found that some segments of the population have lost confidence in the government's ability to improve the situation.
The report said that Iran's support for Shiite extremists is "one of the greatest impediments to progress on reconciliation" in Iraq. It said most of the explosives and ammunition for such groups -- which are battling U.S. and Iraqi troops -- was supplied by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force.
Despite the report of continued Iranian involvement in Iraq, a former top U.S. Middle East commander, retired Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, emphasized in a speech yesterday the need to "contain" the Iranian regime -- even if it becomes a nuclear-armed state -- and stressed that war with Iran should be considered a last resort.
"I believe that we can contain Iran," Abizaid said in a talk at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He said the United States and other countries must vigorously press Tehran to "cease and desist" from obtaining nuclear weapons.
Still, he said, "There are ways to live with a nuclear Iran," adding: "Iran is not a suicide nation. . . . I don't believe the Iranians intend to attack us with nuclear weapons. We have the power to deter Iran should it become nuclear."