By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, April 2, 2008
BAGHDAD, April 1 -- Attacks against U.S. troops and Iraqi security forces soared across Baghdad in the last week of March to the highest levels since the deployment of additional U.S. troops here reached full strength last June, according to U.S. military data and analysis.
The sharp spike in attacks, in response to an ill-prepared Iraqi government offensive in the southern city of Basra last week, underscores the fragility of the U.S. military's hard-won security gains in Iraq and how easily those gains can be erased.
"Last week was clearly a bad week and shows the tenuous nature of security, which is something we've been stressing for some time now," Navy Rear Adm. Gregory J. Smith, the U.S. military's chief spokesman, wrote in an e-mail response to questions. "Security in Iraq is not irreversible, and any number of actors can affect the level of violence if and when they choose to."
Over the week that began March 25, when the offensive began in Basra, there were 728 attacks against U.S. coalition forces, Iraqi security forces and civilians across Iraq, according to U.S. military data obtained by The Washington Post. Of these, 430 -- or almost 60 percent of the attacks -- occurred in Baghdad, the major focus of last year's buildup of 30,000 additional U.S. troops. The forces have begun to withdraw, and the rest are to be gone by the end of July.
In comparison, the average weekly attack rate in Baghdad last June was 326 attacks, according to U.S. military statistics.
By Monday, a day after Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr ordered his Mahdi Army militiamen to lay down their arms, the attacks quickly subsided close to levels seen before the government offensive.
On March 23 and 24, the two days before the offensive began, there were, respectively, 42 and 38 attacks across Iraq. On each of those days, there were only 14 attacks in Baghdad. Over the next few days, attacks in the capital spiked to as many as six times that number.
The rapid containment of the fighting suggests that the "surge" of U.S. forces is but one factor in bringing down violence in Iraq and that in Shiite areas, a cease-fire imposed by Sadr on his militiamen last August may be more significant.
The reduction in violence across Iraq on Monday, which appeared to continue Tuesday, also highlights the power Sadr wields on Iraq's streets and the control he exerts over much of his militia, despite assertions by U.S. military commanders that the cleric's movement has been weakened by the buildup.
The figures and analysis offer more evidence of how swiftly U.S. forces were drawn into a power struggle unfolding between Sadr and rival Shiite groups that lead Iraq's government, mainly Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Dawa party and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, led by Abdul Aziz-Hakim.
The data, said U.S. military officials who provided the information on condition of anonymity because it was not authorized for release, are a preliminary but thorough accounting that could be readjusted slightly.
The data include attacks against U.S. troops, Iraqi security forces and civilians. U.S. forces bore the brunt of those attacks last week, suggesting that they were taking the lead combat role in many areas or were perceived by Mahdi Army fighters to be taking the lead. The data square with on-the-ground reports that American soldiers were involved in battles and were being targeted with roadside bombs, rocket-propelled grenades and other weapons in many Shiite enclaves of Baghdad.
During one 24-hour period -- beginning at 9 p.m. Friday -- 77 attacks were mounted in Baghdad. They included 12 roadside bombs detonated and six found before they exploded. There were six mortar attacks, six rocket-propelled grenade attacks and six rocket attacks. There were also 21 attacks involving multiple weapons, most by Shiite fighters targeting patrols in the neighborhoods of New Baghdad and Karrada.
In interviews, some Mahdi Army commanders and fighters said they saw the Basra offensive as an opportunity to attack U.S. troops in Baghdad after nearly a year of standing down under Sadr's orders.
"It was a big happiness," said Khadim al-Saadi, a Mahdi Army leader in Sadr City, where many of the fiercest battles against U.S. troops occurred. "The main reason for the degradation of our lives is the presence of the occupiers on our land."
A senior U.S. military official, using an acronym for the Mahdi Army, said, "This one-week spike in violence and the subsequent decrease, it has everything to do with Sadr and his control over mainstream JAM." He said Iran also played a role in brokering the deal between Sadr and the Iraqi government that led to Sadr's statement ordering his men to lay down their arms.
In Sadr City on Tuesday, conditions remained tense. A curfew was still in effect there, though it had been lifted over most of the rest of Baghdad, and U.S. forces continued to patrol the vast Shiite district.
Mahdi Army commanders said fighters had withdrawn from the streets. But Saadi warned that if U.S. troops remained, the situation could quickly change. "For every action, there's a reaction," he said.
In Basra, life continued to return to the streets. Traffic moved freely. Government offices began to reopen, although schools and universities remained closed.
Still, police braced for more violence. "There is a condition of unstableness and suspense that a new attack might by implemented by the JAM militants," a police official said on condition of anonymity.
"I'm not optimistic about this calmness," said Usama Abdul Rahman, 35, a government employee. "It is the silence that precedes the storm."
Special correspondents Aahad Ali in Basra and K.I. Ibrahim, Naseer Nouri and Dalya Hassan in Baghdad contributed to this report.