By: E&P Staff
Damien Cave and Stephen Farrell, in a lead story for The New York Times on Sunday, conclude that gains for the security situation in Iraq claimed by “surge” advocates –on the eve of the big re-assessment in Washington, D.C. — are modest compared to what is needed.
Their conclusion stands in stark contrast offered by the paper’s Michael Gordon, a longtime surge advocate, on the front page on Saturday, who touted the official numbers on alleged declines in attacks and civilian deaths.
The Times, in a Sunday editorial, observes, “The military commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, is to deliver a report to Congress on Monday that could be the most consequential testimony by a wartime commander in more than a generation. What the country desperately needs is an honest assessment of the war and a clear strategy for extricating American forces from the hopeless spiral of violence in Iraq.” It notes that the general has been overly-optimistic in the past.
The Cave/Farrell article opens as follows. It is quite lengthy and is at www.nytimes.com, along with an interactive “neighborhood” guide.
Seven months after the American-led troop ?surge? began, Baghdad has experienced modest security gains that have neither reversed the city?s underlying sectarian dynamic nor created a unified and trusted national government.
Improvements have been made. American military figures show that sectarian killings in Baghdad have decreased substantially. In many of Baghdad?s most battle-scarred areas, including Mansour in the west and Ur in the east, markets and parks that were practically abandoned last year have begun to revive.
The surge has also coincided with and benefited from a dramatic turnaround in many Sunni areas where former insurgents and tribes have defected from supporting violent extremism, delivering reliable tips and helping the Americans find and eliminate car bomb factories. An average of 23 car bombs a month struck Baghdad in June, July and August, down from an average of 42 over the same period a year earlier.
But the overall impact of those developments, so far, has been limited. And in some cases the good news is a consequence of bad news: people in neighborhoods have been ?takhalasu? ? an Iraqi word for purged, meaning killed or driven away. More than 35,000 Iraqis have left their homes in Baghdad since the American troop buildup began, aid groups reported.
The hulking blast walls that the Americans have set up around many neighborhoods have only intensified the city?s sense of balkanization. Merchants must now hire a different driver for individual areas, lest gunmen kill a stranger from another sect to steal a truckload of T-shirts.
To study the full effects of the troop increase at ground level, reporters for The New York Times repeatedly visited at least 20 neighborhoods in Baghdad and its surrounding belts, interviewing more than 150 residents, in addition to members of sectarian militias, Americans patrolling the city and Iraqi officials.
They found that the additional troops had slowed, but far from stopped, Iraq?s still-burning civil war. Baghdad remains a city where sectarian violence can flare at any moment, and where the central government is becoming less reliable and relevant as Shiite or Sunni vigilantes demand submission to their own brand of law. ?These improvements in the face of the general devastation look small and insignificant because the devastation is so much bigger,? said Haidar Minathar, an Iraqi author, actor and director. He added that the security gains ?have no great influence.?
The troop increase was meant to create conditions that could lead from improved security in Baghdad to national reconciliation to a strong central government to American military withdrawal. In recent weeks, President Bush and his commanders have shifted their emphasis to new alliances with tribal leaders that have improved security in Diyala Province, the Sunni Triangle and other Sunni areas, most notably Anbar Province.
That area, not Baghdad, was the one Mr. Bush conspicuously chose to visit this week.
But when he announced on Jan. 10 his plan to add 20,000 to 30,000 troops to Iraq, Mr. Bush emphasized that Baghdad was the linchpin for creating a stable Iraq. With less fear of death in the capital, ?Iraqis will gain confidence in their leaders and the government will have the breathing space it needs to make progress in other critical areas,? he said.
That has not happened. More than 160,000 American troops are now in Iraq to help secure 25 million people. Across Baghdad ? which undoubtedly remains a crucial barometer ? American and Iraqi forces have moved closer to the population, out of giant bases and into 29 joint security stations. But even as some neighborhoods have improved, others have worsened as fighters moved to areas with fewer American troops.
Lt. Col. Steven M. Miska, deputy commander of a brigade of the First Infantry Division that is charged with controlling northwest Baghdad, said, ?We?ve done everything we can militarily.?
He added, ?I think we have essentially stalled the sectarian conflict without addressing the underlying grievances.?
Sunnis and Shiites still fear each other. At the top levels of the government and in the sweltering neighborhoods of Baghdad, hatreds are festering, not healing.
The political standoff identified by this week?s Government Accountability Office report can be found not just in the halls of Parliament. The distrust and obstinacy start in the streets.