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A Spiral Of Death Looms In Iraq As Mahdi Army Flexes In South

Iraqis inspect the damage to cars after the US-led forces called in airstrikes to support an early morning raid in the Baghdad Shiite stronghold of Sadr City. US and British forces on Saturday clashed with Moqtada al-Sadr's supporters in Baghdad and Basra, even as Iraq's politicians cautiously welcomed the radical Shiite cleric's return to the political scene. Photo courtesy AFP.
by Martin Sieff
UPI Senior News Analyst
Washingtion (UPI) May 29, 2007
Almost 1,000 U.S. troops died in Iraq last year, and more than that could die in the coming year if current trends continue. The reason for these statements is that the situation in Iraq is deteriorating ominously. The risk is growing that unless rapid action is taken to avert it, the 147,000 U.S. troops currently deployed in that country could find themselves facing a Shiite Muslim militia uprising far more dangerous than the Sunni Muslim insurgency they have been fighting since spring 2003.

Over the weekend, forces of Moqtada Sadr's Shiite militia, the Mahdi Army, again clashed with British forces in southern Iraq, and Sadr called upon U.S. forces to quit Iraq as quickly as possible.

Already, Gen. David Petraeus' much touted new "surge" strategy, while enjoying some tactical successes, appears to have failed at the strategic level -- as we predicted it would in these columns.

The "surge" strategy did succeed in dramatically slashing the incidence of random militia terror and retaliation killings in Baghdad. But that has been achieved at the cost of significantly rising U.S. casualty figures.

As our companion UPI Iraq Benchmarks column noted last week, April was the bloodiest month yet for U.S. troop fatalities in the war. Even more ominously, the rate per day at which U.S. troops are being killed and injured by insurgent attacks, primarily by improvised explosive devices and car bombs, is now running at its highest level since the insurgency began.

The figures for May are expected to be worse than those for April, and no relief is expected over the summer. Even the White House has abandoned its regular rosy-eyed attitude on Iraq to acknowledge that it expects casualties to continue running at a relatively high level at least through August.

Wars are not won without cost, contrary to the delusions of the high-tech romantics who infested the Pentagon during Donald Rumsfeld's fateful six years as U.S. defense secretary. And throughout history, many of the most successful generals, such as Napoleon, Wellington, Pershing and Ulysses S. Grant, have endured huge casualties -- far greater than anything the United States has so far endured in Iraq to win wars.

But what is most telling against Petraeus' "surge" strategy is not the rising U.S. casualties, which were anticipated, but that it has failed to erode the Sunni insurgents' capabilities to continue inflicting havoc on Shiite and Kurdish civilian populations.

Further, the rising tensions with Sadr are a fire bell in the night to U.S. policymakers that their time is running out. It remains uncertain how long the Shiite majority will endure a major U.S. troop presence that does not appear to be bringing them the basic security they need.

Defenders of the "surge" strategy say it still needs time and that effective counter-insurgency tactics against such guerrilla groups take many months, or even years, to become effective.

There are three answers to that argument: First, in 1950s Malaya, 1950s Algeria, 1921 Ireland and late 1970s Ireland, effective counter-insurgency measures did not take that long to become effective. Improvements should usually be seen within a few months.

Second, there has been no real sign of significant attrition of the Sunni insurgent groups' overall capabilities since the surge strategy began nearly three months ago, and many U.S. combat and intelligence officers privately have no expectation that there will be.

That is because counter-insurgency can only work when there is a real, credible government backing up the military forces trying to win the counter-insurgency campaign, and as we have repeatedly documented in these columns, the ramshackle parliamentary system imposed arbitrarily on Iraq by the Bush administration is incapable of producing any kind of credible national government.

The writ of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki runs exactly as far as either the U.S. armed forces or his Shiite militia allies who exercise the real power will let him use it. Without them, his government is powerless.

Third, and most important, even if current U.S. strategies could still prove effective over the long term, they are not going to be allowed to have a long term. The key dynamic here is not the growing anti-war sentiment within the United States -- it is the growing danger of conflict with elements of the Shiite majority in Iraq.

Also, as we have noted before, if the Bush administration launches a pre-emptive series of airstrikes to destroy Iran's nuclear capabilities, it will run the risk of a far more widespread Shiite uprising within Iraq than merely from Sadr's Mahdi Army. The Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which is closely allied to the Tehran regime, would certainly react ferociously against any such U.S. move.

Washington now teems with unsubstantiated reports of upcoming policy reassessments on Iraq. No doubt they will happen. But all current indications are that they will only tinker with existing policies, like the recent playacting over naming a powerless, middle-rank general officer as a "war czar" when he was in reality no such thing. Meanwhile, the soldiers in the field will continue to die.

earlier related report
Analysis: Bush offering a withdrawal date?
Washington (UPI) May 29 - Since the start of the Iraq war in March 2003, the Bush administration has vacillated over a number of foreign policy issues. It has, for instance, refused to engage in talks with Iraqi Sunni insurgents, then reversed course when the violence reached new heights. The administration has repeatedly refused to have any contact with Iran, only to reverse that policy as late as Monday.

Breaking the diplomatic ice after 27 years of no direct contact between Washington and Tehran, the U.S. ambassador to Baghdad met his Iranian counterpart for a session that lasted four hours.

But throughout the tortuous ordeal that has been the Iraq war, the president and his administration have remained adamant over one major topic: that of refusing to establish a timetable for U.S. troop withdrawal from the war, despite growing opposition at home. One can safely say that it was the Iraq war that caused the Republican Party to lose the majority in both houses of Congress to the Democrats last November.

President Bush was consistent in not wanting to give the enemy a date by which U.S. soldiers would leave Iraq. The president argued, as did many others, that so doing -- in announcing a date by which the United States would pull out of Iraq -- would be tantamount to communicating vital military information to the enemy. The president remained steadfast that no timetable, no self-imposed calendar for pulling out U.S. troops, would be made. And in that regard, the president has not budged.

But then suddenly within the past few weeks the administration seemed to change course without really meaning to. It happened in a very roundabout way. The administration, it would appear, has opted for a timetable of a different sort, but one nevertheless that would result in the withdrawal of U.S. and coalition forces from Iraq, or at least a large number of them.

That date is set for September, just four months away.

As it turns out, for a number of weeks now September has been floated around Washington as an important month to watch, as far as the war goes. By that time the generals who are running the war will reassess the situation on the ground following the surge ordered earlier in the year by the president. By September the generals and the civilians who direct them in Washington should have a pretty good and clear idea on how the surge has worked -- or not worked.

As a reminder, the surge saw the dispatch of several thousand fresh soldiers and Marines -- sometimes maybe not even that fresh given that most troops are now serving their second or third tours of duty in Iraq.

By September the Pentagon should be able to judge if the surge was a success or failure.

If the situation worsens in Iraq between now and September, it would prove the surge was not that great an idea. Many are those who would argue that since the start of the surge, terrorist attacks, car bombings, suicide bombings and roadside bombings using improvised explosive devices have also surged. And the majority of casualties have been Iraqi civilians, who are dying by the hundreds.

Yet advertising the September reassessment date as they have done will produce the very results Bush was hoping to avoid. Now the insurgency as well as al-Qaida operatives, their supporters, sympathizers, affiliates and just about anybody with minimum military training and a strong grudge and desire to fight the United States will make it a point to step up attacks against American and other coalition forces.

As a matter of fact, U.S. military commanders on the ground in Iraq have stated that they do expect more opposition between now and September. It is in this context that the United States has engaged Iran in talks in an effort to resolve the violence that has become a daily occurrence in Iraq.

As far as Iran is concerned, it remains in its interest to perpetuate the state of havoc in Iraq until the departure of the last American soldier and Marine. This might explain why President Bush elected to flex some military muscle -- in the form of a naval task force headed for the Persian Gulf -- all while breaking the ice with Tehran.

Source: United Press International

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Democrats Prepare New Strategy On Iraq War
Washington (AFP) May 27, 2007
Despite losing the Iraq war budget battle to the White House, Democrats are giving a positive spin to Congress' vote on it last week while gearing up for new, tougher battles on the unpopular war. Just hours after President George W. Bush got his demand for a war budget stripped of troop withdrawal dates, Democratic leaders said the fight was not over.

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