By Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 15, 2007
CAMP LIBERTY, Iraq -- Senior military commanders here now portray the intransigence of Iraq's Shiite-dominated government as the key threat facing the U.S. effort in Iraq, rather than al-Qaeda terrorists, Sunni insurgents or Iranian-backed militias.
In more than a dozen interviews, U.S. military officials expressed growing concern over the Iraqi government's failure to capitalize on sharp declines in attacks against U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians. A window of opportunity has opened for the government to reach out to its former foes, said Army Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the commander of day-to-day U.S. military operations in Iraq, but "it's unclear how long that window is going to be open."
The lack of political progress calls into question the core rationale behind the troop buildup President Bush announced in January, which was premised on the notion that improved security would create space for Iraqis to arrive at new power-sharing arrangements. And what if there is no such breakthrough by next summer? "If that doesn't happen," Odierno said, "we're going to have to review our strategy."
Brig. Gen. John F. Campbell, deputy commanding general of the 1st Cavalry Division, complained last week that Iraqi politicians appear out of touch with everyday citizens. "The ministers, they don't get out," he said. "They don't know what the hell is going on on the ground." Campbell noted approvingly that Lt. Gen. Aboud Qanbar, the top Iraqi commander in the Baghdad security offensive, lately has begun escorting cabinet officials involved in health, housing, oil and other issues out of the Green Zone to show them, as Campbell put it, "Hey, I got the security, bring in the [expletive] essential services."
Indeed, some U.S. Army officers now talk more sympathetically about former insurgents than they do about their ostensible allies in the Shiite-led central government. "It is painful, very painful," dealing with the obstructionism of Iraqi officials, said Army Lt. Col. Mark Fetter. As for the Sunni fighters who for years bombed and shot U.S. soldiers and now want to join the police, Fetter shrugged. "They have got to eat," he said over lunch in the 1st Cavalry Division's mess hall here. "There are so many we've detained and interrogated, they did what they did for money."
The best promise for breaking the deadlock would be holding provincial elections, officers said -- though they recognize that elections could turn bloody and turbulent, undercutting the fragile stability they now see developing in Iraq.
"The tipping point that I've been looking for as an intel officer, we are there," said one Army officer here who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of his position. "The GOI [government of Iraq] and ISF [Iraqi security forces] are at the point where they can make it or break it."
The latest news of declining violence comes as the U.S. troop contingent in Iraq has reached an all-time high. This week, the U.S. troop number will hit 175,000 -- the largest presence so far in the 4 1/2 -year war -- as units that are rotating in and out overlap briefly. But those numbers are scheduled to come down rapidly over the next several months, which will place an increasing burden on Iraqi security forces and an Iraqi government that has yet to demonstrate it is up to the challenge, senior military officials said.
Indeed, after years of seizing on every positive development and complaining that the good news wasn't being adequately conveyed, American military officials now warn against excessive optimism. "It's never as bad as it was, and it's not as good as it's being reported now," said Army Maj. Gen. Michael Barbero, chief of strategic operations for U.S. forces in Iraq.
On the diplomatic side of the Iraq equation, U.S. officials said they realize time is short. "We've got six months because the military is leaving," said one official. But this official and others expressed irritation with the military's negativity toward the Iraqi government -- which they interpret as blaming the State Department for not speeding reconciliation.
"That's their out," the official said of the military. "It's convenient, and I know plenty of them have been helping that story around."
Diplomatic officials, none of whom were authorized to speak on the record, insisted that progress is being made, even if it lags behind military successes. They highlighted two key elements needed for political reconciliation in Iraq, one domestic and one external. Internally, sectarian politicians remain deadlocked on a range of issues. Shiite political groups are holding back as they vie for national power and control over resources, while the majority Shiite population fears that the Sunnis hope to recapture the dominance they held under Saddam Hussein.
In recent weeks, U.S. Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker has focused on external forces, hoping to persuade neighboring Sunni Arab governments to increase their official presence in Iraq -- no Arab government currently has an embassy in Baghdad -- to boost the confidence of Iraqi Sunnis.
Late last month, Crocker traveled to virtually every nearby Arab country except Syria and Saudi Arabia. His message, one official said, was "Look, you have got to get behind this because you've got to do everything you can to give all sides confidence."
The U.S. military approach in Iraq this year has focused on striking deals with Sunni insurgents, under which they stop fighting the Americans and instead protect their own neighborhoods. So far about 70,000 such volunteers have been enrolled -- a trend that makes the Shiite-led central government nervous, especially as the movement gets closer to Baghdad.
Indeed, all the U.S. military officials interviewed said their most pressing concern is that Sunnis will sour if the Iraqi government doesn't begin to reciprocate their peace overtures. "The Sunnis have shown great patience," said Campbell. "You don't want the Sunnis that are working with you . . . to go back to the dark side."
The Army officer who requested anonymity said that if the Iraqi government doesn't reach out, then for former Sunni insurgents "it's game on -- they're back to attacking again."
The year-long progress in fighting al-Qaeda in Iraq could carry a downside. Maj. Mark Brady, who works on reconciliation issues, noted that a Sunni leader told him: "As soon as we finish with al-Qaeda, we start with the Shiite extremists." Talk like that is sharply discouraged, Brady noted as he walked across the dusty ground of Camp Liberty, on the western fringes of Baghdad.
But not all agreed that the Sunnis would take up arms. "I don't think going back to violence is in the cards," said Barbero. Rather, he predicted that if they give up on reaching an accommodation, they will resort to new political actions. One possibility mentioned by other officials is a symbolic Sunni move to secede from Iraq.
Also, some outside experts contend that U.S. officials still don't grasp how their empowerment of militias under the bottom-up model of reconciliation is helping tear apart Iraq. Marc Lynch, a George Washington University expert on the Middle East, argued recently on his blog, Abu Aardvark, that partly because of U.S. political tactics in Iraq, the country is drifting "towards a warlord state, along a Basra model, with power devolved to local militias, gangs, tribes, and power-brokers, with a purely nominal central state."
Officials identified other potential problems flowing from reductions in violence. Military planners already worry that if security continues to improve, many of the 2 million Iraqis who fled the country will return. Those who left are overwhelmingly Sunni, and many of their old houses are occupied by Shiites. How would the Shiite-dominated Iraqi army and police handle the likely friction? "Displaced people is a major flashpoint" to worry about in 2008, said Fetter.
The answer to many of Iraq's problems, several military officials said, would be to hold provincial elections, which they said would inject new blood into Iraq's political life and also better link the Baghdad government to the people. The question under debate is whether to hold them sooner, while the U.S. military still has available its five "surge" brigades, or hold them later and let Iraqis enjoy their growing sense of safety -- even though a smaller U.S. military would have less flexibility. "Some areas, you need them right now, to get people into the government," said Campbell. "But the other side of me says, let it settle in, let security develop, let people see some services." Later rather than sooner is especially appealing because the election campaigns are expected to turn violent.
But the longer provincial balloting is put off, the more likely the current political stalemate will continue. Also, if elections are postponed until, say, the fall of next year, they will be held on the eve of a U.S. presidential vote in which the Iraq war promises to be a major issue, military planners here note.
So, how to force political change in Iraq without destabilizing the country further? "I pity the guy who has to reconcile that tension," said Lt. Col. Douglas Ollivant, the chief of planning for U.S. military operations in Baghdad, whose tour of duty ends next month.
Staff writer Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.