The top American commander in Iraq says the new security plan 'will take months, not days, not weeks'
Summing up his first nine weeks as commander here, he said that "We see some slow, steady progress but also disappointments in some areas like car bombings and suicide bombings." The progress, he said, has come in the form of a significant decline in killings by Shiite death squads since January. But the Sunni insurgents and terrorists have stepped up their attacks and are, for instance, presumed responsible for the Sadriya market bombing. "Clearly, al Qaeda is trying to derail the security plan by reigniting sectarian violence," the general said of the recent attacks, which also included the bombing of Parliament and the destruction of a key bridge.
U.S. officials also say that the increase in U.S. soldiers' deathswhich have topped 80 a month since Februaryis not unexpected given the new security push. The plan aims to secure Baghdad and the surrounding area by sending out 17,500 U.S. soldiers and thousands of Iraqi police and troops in small detachments. The goal is to provide protection to a battered population and create some breathing room for Iraqis to move forward on reconciling their political differences.
About 10,000 of those U.S. soldiers, three of five brigades in the "surge," have now arrived in Iraq, and many of them have moved out into Baghdad neighborhoods into "joint security sites" and even smaller "combat outposts." They have erected security walls around public gathering spots like markets, rounded up weapons caches, and detained suspected Sunni insurgents and Shiite death squads. The sectarian death squads have largely gone to ground, although Petraeus remains concerned about activity in four neighborhoods. "It takes time to clear a neighborhood," he said. "This is not for the impatient."
Indeed, a test of wills is now underway as the troops move into neighborhoods. In the dead of night, insurgents dragged newly erected concrete barriers away from markets in some areas. Even after U.S. soldiers pulled the huge slabs back into place and wired them together with thick cables, insurgents have returned with blowtorches to move them yet again. "Al Qaeda wants access to the population," Petraeus said. "This is a battle over neighborhoods."
In a major gambit to gain greater support from other countries,and particularly Iraq's neighbors, a high-level conference is planned for the Egyptian resort of Sharm al-Sheikh on May 3 and 4. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will attend, as will the foreign ministers from Europe and Iraq's neighbors. Iraq's prime minister and other top officials will be there as well. On the first day of the conference, an international aid agreement orchestrated by the United Nations and the Iraqi government is to be rolled out. In return for Iraqi commitments to economic reforms, countries are to pledge their support for reconstruction, either by renewing earlier, unfulfilled aid pledges or by making new, additional pledges. In a pleasant surprise, Saudi Arabiawhich has been publicly grumbling about the U.S. "occupation" of Iraqannounced last week that it would forgive 80 percent of Iraq's debt owed the kingdom, about $18 billion. It is a small portion of Iraq's total outstanding foreign debt of some $380 billion, but the gesture offers hope that the summit will not be another disappointing diplomatic exercise.