New reporting from Baghdad and Washington has called into question the frequently asserted claim that the military surge in Iraq is working.
In particular, journalists are beginning to point out that despite security gains inside the Iraqi capital, there are concrete signs that the "fragile" peace cited by Gen. David Petraeus over the weekend will not hold once the Pentagon begins reducing troops numbers to pre-surge levels.
Last week, McClatchy Newspapers published the findings of the Pentagon's most recent quarterly progress report from Iraq. Underscoring the lack of progress in bringing political stability or national reconciliation to Iraq, Reporter Nancy Youssef wrote:
Despite significant security gains in much of Iraq, nothing has changed within Iraq's political leadership to guarantee sustainable peace, a Pentagon report released Tuesday found.
The congressionally mandated quarterly report suggests that the drop in violence won't hold unless Iraq's central government passes key legislation, improves the way it manages its security forces and finds a way to reconcile the country's competing sects. It said none of those steps has been taken.
Although security gains, local accommodation and progress against the flow of foreign fighters and lethal aid into Iraq have had a substantial effect, more needs to be done to foster national, 'top-down' reconciliation to sustain the gains," the report said.
The Pentagon report is the latest assessment circulating in Washington as officials ponder whether the strategy of increasing U.S. troop strength this year by 30,000 can be called a victory or whether the drop in violence is a lull that will break once the United States returns to last year's troop levels.
Youssef's reporting also cited concerns about the preparedness of Iraqi security forces to take over from American servicemen. She wrote:
The report also said that despite four years of intense U.S. effort, the Iraqi security forces remain unprepared to operate independently. It said that the ministries of interior and defense are plagued by "deficiencies in logistics, combat support functions and . . . by shortages of officers at all operational and tactical levels."
The report also raises questions about the future of so-called concerned local citizens organizations, which U.S. military leaders have credited with helping to quiet many of Iraq's contentious areas. The U.S. pays the organizations' estimated 70,000 members to patrol Iraq's streets, giving them jobs and, U.S. officials believe, less incentive to join the insurgency.
The report said the groups were "crucial to the counterinsurgency effort." But it also warned that they could evolve into a militia that's opposed to Iraq's central government, a fear shared by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki. The vast majority of the concerned local citizens are Sunni Muslims. The government is dominated by Shiites.
Over the weekend, an article by Damian Cave and Alissa Rubin in the New York Times reiterated the concerns surrounding the Sunni patrol groups, part of the so-called "Awakening" movement.
Rubin and Cave wrote:
It is an experiment in counterinsurgency warfare that could contain the seeds of a civil war -- in which, if the worst fears come true, the United States would have helped organize some of the Sunni forces arrayed against the central government on which so many American lives and dollars have been spent.
And further down in their article, Rubin and Cave reported:
[I]t remains unclear what the Awakening will become and whether the tribes will stick together or segregate. Nor is it clear whether Iraq's government will ever meet the tribes' demands, which range from the simple (more electricity, water and jobs) to the extreme (a wildly disproportionate share of the seats in the Parliament).
In interviews with more than a dozen sheiks in the province, along with police officers, local leaders and imams, not one expressed any trust in the government of Prime Minister Maliki. "They are working only for the Shiites," said Mahmoud Abed Shabeeb, who acknowledged that 130 members of his tribe were policemen, paid by the Shiite-led Interior Ministry in Baghdad. "Everyone knows that."
The New York Times and McClatchy have not been the only news organizations to question the use of the Awakening groups. On his influential Iraq blog, University of Michigan professor Juan Cole pointed out that in some areas, members of the Awakening groups have gotten into fire fights with local security officials. Cole wrote:
The problems with the dual authority being established in Sunni Arab areas-- with tribal Awakening Councils appointing themselves as, often, vigilantes-- became apparent on Monday when a firefight broke out in Bayji between Awakening members and local official police. There really need to be new provincial elections in Iraq so that if any Awakening members are actually popular, they can gain legitimacy at the polls.
Cole also highlighted one of the other consequences of the surge: the massive displacement of Iraqi civilians. On December 19, Cole wrote:
The US troop escalation that began last February seems to be implicated in the displacement of nearly one million Iraqis to Syria between January and October of this year, adding to the nearly 450,000 that fled there in 2006. This is according to projections from a United Nations weighted survey of nearly 800 refugees. Some 78% of those interviewed in Syria said that they came from Baghdad.
How the US 'surge' drove almost one million Iraqis to Syria last spring and summer is a great mystery, and casts severe doubt on its political success. A significant proportion of these one million Surge Victims appear to have been Baghdad Sunnis, since from January of 2007 through July 2007 the US military admits that Baghdad went from being 65% Shiite to being 75% Shiite. Since another 500,000 left between July and October, depending on what proportion of those were Sunnis, Baghdad could now be even more than 3/4s Shiite. The Sunnis are not going to take this lying down, and the 'surge' seems to me to have set the stage for 1) a violent return of hundreds of thousands of Sunni Arabs to their usurped homes in Baghdad and 2) therefore a second Battle for Baghdad as soon as the US forces in Iraq are too weak to prevent it.
On Sunday, Barack Obama told CBS' Bob Scheiffer that the surge has simply brought Iraq back to the starting gate:
[W]e have essentially gone full circle. We had intolerable levels of violence and a dysfunctional government back in 2006. We saw a huge spike in violence to horrific levels. The surge comes in, and now we're back to where we were in 2006 with intolerable levels of violence and a dysfunctional Iraqi government.
And John Edwards gave NBC's Matt Lauer a similar take on the surge:
I think that there has been some decrease in the violence; there's no question about that. But the fundamental question that's been there all along -- and it was there at the beginning of the surge, according to President Bush -- is whether there's been some political progress, Matt.
I mean, have the Sunnis and Shi'a actually made some progress toward a political compromise or political reconciliation? And if that hasn't happened -- and it clearly has not -- then there's been no serious progress. That was the entire purpose of the surge.