The top American commander in Iraq says the new security plan 'will take months, not days, not weeks'
BAGHDAD-As one of the season's first sandstorms began to turn the skies of Baghdad brown last Wednesday, a car bomb went off during the lunch hour. Three more bombs followed in the next six hours, in all killing more than 150 Iraqis and wounding some 200 others on one of the bloodiest days in the four years since the United States invaded to topple Saddam Hussein. Most of that grisly toll occurred in a parking area for the large Sadriya market-a location that was newly vulnerable after residents turned away recent steps to prevent just such an attack.
This wasn't the first time bombers struck the busy, largely Shiite enclave. The market itself had been devastated (and some 137 people killed) early this year by a suicide truck bomber. In a show of support, the new commander of the U.S.-led coalition forces, Gen. David Petraeus, made a point of visiting the market and mingling with shoppers soon after his arrival in February. As part of the new Baghdad security plan-which Petraeus helped design and is in charge of implementing-large concrete barriers were brought in to restrict access to the parking area after a military "red team" determined that area too was vulnerable. But on April 15, three days before the deadly attack, Iraqi officials ordered the 12-foot "Texas barriers" pulled away after local residents complained about the obstruction.
In a lengthy interview with U.S. News a day after the bombings, Petraeus grimly lamented the loss of life and said that restrictive measures such as the concrete walls are a necessary part of security provisions. "The public has to put up with the inconvenience," he said. His calls for Iraqis to persevere were echoed by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who arrived later in the day and visited the western Anbar province, where months of tribal negotiations and new tactics have brought a glimmer of hope. Once the Wild West hotbed of the Sunni unrest, insurgent violence in Anbar has dropped as Sunni tribes have formed a local council and sent recruits to join the regular police and new ad-hoc militias called "emergency response units."
Withholding judgment. This week, Petraeus is scheduled to make his first comprehensive report to Congress on the implementation of the so-called surge strategy. He will face a Congress deeply divided over Iraq, with Democratic leaders doubtful about the prospects for success and headed for a showdown with President Bush over setting a troop withdrawal deadline. Using a formulation he is likely to employ in testifying to Congress, Petraeus said it is too soon to make any judgment about how many troops will be needed and for how long. "It will be another two months before all the troops are on the ground," he said. "We only have 60 percent of the troops in place. There has been some progress, but it will take months, not days, not weeks." And, he added, "at the end of the day it will require Iraqi political steps to foster reconciliation among Iraqis."
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' deaths-which have topped 80 a month since February-is 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, 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 Arabia-which has been publicly grumbling about the U.S. "occupation" of Iraq-announced 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.
Friends and foes. Discussion on May 4 will turn to regional politics, specifically ways in which each country is helping or hindering Iraq's fledgling government and moribund reconciliation process. The spotlight will be on Iran and Syria and on how actively Rice engages with two states the United States formally accuses of supporting terrorism (and, in Iran's case, of seeking nuclear weapons). Calling their actions "distinctly unhelpful," Petraeus told U.S. News: "It is a fact that foreign fighters come in through Syria ... and that various insurgent groups have their political headquarters, if you will, inside Syria. And it's a fact that Iran has been fueling some of the very, very lethal activities on the Shia side through the provision of money, advanced weapons, and training."
Petraeus then proceeded to add some very specific details about Iran's meddling: Two death squad leaders, once connected to Shiite firebrand cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, were recently captured after a yearlong effort by U.S. and Iraqi special operations forces. Breaking with Sadr, the two brothers, Laith and Qais Khazali, allegedly led a splinter group of 3,000 followers that received training and weapons from Iran.
In a not-so-veiled warning to Iran, Petraeus said: "We learned an enormous amount about [Iranian activities] during the interrogation of the Khazali brothers and the materials that were captured with them, which included very detailed logs of operations and a 22-page report on the operation in Karbala." In the latter, four U.S. soldiers were kidnapped and killed by Shiite militia members wearing stolen U.S. uniforms and carrying official IDs. Calling activities by Iran and Syria "very damaging," Petraeus is clearly hoping that his message reaches Sharm al-Sheikh.
This story appears in the April 30, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.