U.S. Planners See Shiite Militias as Rising Threat

Iraqis gather at the site of a U.S. airstrike in the Sadr City neighborhood of Baghdad. At least 13 people were killed and more were wounded, according to Iraqi police.
Iraqis gather at the site of a U.S. airstrike in the Sadr City neighborhood of Baghdad. At least 13 people were killed and more were wounded, according to Iraqi police. (By Wathiq Khuzaie -- Getty Images)
By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 22, 2007

Gen. David H. Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker have concluded that Shiite extremists pose a rising threat to the U.S. effort in Iraq, as the relative influence of Sunni insurgent groups such as al-Qaeda in Iraq has diminished drastically because of ongoing U.S. operations.

This judgment forms part of the changes that Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, approved last week to their classified campaign strategy for the country, which covers the period through summer 2009. The updated plan anticipates shifting the U.S. military effort to focus more on countering Shiite militias -- some backed by Iran -- that have generated new violence as they battle for power in the south and elsewhere in Iraq, said senior military and diplomatic officials familiar with the plan.

"As the Sunni insurgents quit fighting us, the problems we have with criminality and other militia, many of them Shia, become relatively more important," said a U.S. Embassy official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity because the plan is not finalized.

The plan also acknowledges that the U.S. military -- with limited time and troops -- cannot guarantee a wholesale defeat of its enemies in Iraq, and instead is seeking "political accommodation" to persuade them to end the use of violence, the officials said.

In the political arena, the campaign plan no longer upholds the passage of specific laws by Iraq's parliament as the main measure of reconciliation among religious and ethnic factions. It instead emphasizes the need for government leaders to take concrete, practical steps in areas such as sharing oil revenues or hiring ex-Baathist officials. "We want to have more focus on these results . . . not on the technical legislation," said the embassy official.

Crocker and Petraeus are in broad agreement over the campaign plan changes, summarized in a 20-slide presentation that they approved in a meeting last Wednesday. However, officials identified frictions over elements of the plan -- in particular, the pace and scope of future troop withdrawals -- between Petraeus, whose priority is stabilizing Iraq, and senior leaders at the Pentagon, Joint Chiefs of Staff and regional commands concerned about the risks of conflicts elsewhere.

Top military, Pentagon and State Department officials will review the changes, which will then be incorporated into the full campaign plan, a document of more than 200 pages. Petraeus and Crocker are expected to sign the new plan by mid-November.

The revised plan lays out specifics of the withdrawal of five U.S. combat brigades from Iraq by July 2008 as announced by President Bush last month, but it stresses that any drawdowns hinge on continued security gains -- not a timeline.

"Redeployments of U.S. brigades -- even of the surge forces -- are dependent on the security situation on the ground in Iraq. If General Petraeus early next year sees the security situation deteriorating, he will have the courage to go back to the president and say he needs to keep forces that he had planned to send home," said Col. John R. Martin, senior adviser to Petraeus.

In contrast, "Centcom, the Joint Staff and OSD [Office of the Secretary of Defense] would be happier with more forces coming out, and if they could order us to redeploy forces more quickly they would do it," said a senior official familiar with the plan. "But the president is on the CG's [commanding general's] side."

Senior Pentagon and military officials say the tensions emerge from commanders' different responsibilities. "The concern in Baghdad is a lot more restricted, as their mission only includes Iraq," said a senior military official. "At the end of the day, Iraq is Iraq. It's very important, but there are other problems in the world," such as Iran, Afghanistan, Lebanon and the Horn of Africa, the official said.

The plan calls for accelerated talks with the Iraqi government to secure a renewal of the U.N. Security Council resolution that allows the U.S. military to operate in Iraq through 2008. That process could be complicated if, as U.S. officials expect, Iraqi leaders pursue changes to the status of private security contractors operating in Iraq.

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