BAGHDAD, Iraq — The Iraq war could be heading to its decisive moment: a battle for the capital of Baghdad that already has turned dramatically bloodier for American soldiers and carries enormous stakes for the country’s future.
At least 13 American soldiers have been killed around Baghdad since Monday — the highest four-day U.S. toll in the capital since the 2003 invasion.
That count is likely to rise higher as the U.S.-led forces step up their campaign to root out the extremist militias, death squads and terrorist cells that have turned the city into a collection of armed, ethnically divided camps.
No longer a limited security problem while the main war was being fought out west in Anbar province, the battle of Baghdad is turning out to be “a critical point in the Iraq war,” says former Pentagon analyst Anthony Cordesman.
“Securing Baghdad ... won’t win. But losing Baghdad will lose,” Cordesman says. “If they lose, Iraq is likely to slip into a major civil war.”
Much of Baghdad is yet to be targeted in the joint U.S.-Iraqi pacification operation. Top commanders — signaling the toughest fight is yet to come — say they need six more Iraqi battalions, or 3,000 soldiers, to join the 30,000 Iraqi security forces and 15,000 Americans already in the city.
U.S. commanders have defined victory as reducing violence in the capital to the point where Iraqi civilian police could handle security. With order restored in the capital, the Iraqi government then could focus on providing security and basic services to the rest of the country — thus creating conditions for U.S. troops to leave.
Baghdad is “the center of gravity for the country. Everybody knows that,” Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. general in Iraq, told The Associated Press in a recent interview. “The bad guys know it, we know it, the Iraqis know it. So we have to help the Iraqis secure their capital if they’re going to go forward.”
No choice but to win
U.S. officials won’t say how they define defeat — insisting there is no choice but to win. Senior military officials concede it will take weeks if not months to turn Baghdad around. But they insist no effort can be spared.
In one sign of how crucial Baghdad is to the success of the U.S. war effort, top commanders have moved soldiers from western Iraq’s Anbar province to Baghdad for the offensive. Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the No. 2 general in Iraq, called the reshuffling necessary to “winning the main effort” in Baghdad.
The battle started relatively easily: U.S. soldiers encountered little resistance when the new offensive began Aug. 7 in the mostly Sunni Muslim areas of western Baghdad.
But that changed as operations shifted into Shiite strongholds near the Sadr City neighborhood — stronghold of the Mahdi Army of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
Now, as the Shiites and Sunnis struggle for power, Shiite snipers fire routinely at U.S. patrols, even as Sunni insurgents plant roadside bombs west of the capital.
To achieve success, the Americans and their Iraqi partners are trying to weaken both the Sunni and Shiite extremist groups equally.
“I can’t drive (the Mahdi Army) into the dirt and let (al-Qaida) basically conduct suicide attacks at will,” one senior coalition intelligence officer said on condition of anonymity for security reasons. “I’ve got to take both elements out of the equation.”
The military tries to encourage the militias’ political patrons to reach a political deal, and offers benefits.
Operation implemented in stages
Once U.S. troops secure a neighborhood, reconstruction teams move in to map plans to restore electricity, water and sewage. Those teams have 90 days to make proposals, which are submitted to the Iraqi government for funding.
The operation has achieved some success: In July, violent deaths among civilians in Baghdad soared to an unprecedented high of 3,590, according to the United Nations. In August the figure dropped to 3,009, the U.N. said.
But the battle has proved politically tricky.
Many of the estimated 23 Shiite and Sunni militias operating in the capital have ties to the very politicians whom the U.S. encouraged to join the new government of national unity. Al-Sadr, for example, is a pillar of support for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
And gunmen considered by the Americans to be a threat to Iraq’s survival are often viewed by their own communities as their best source of protection.
“There’s a lot of politics going on now, and we’re a police force, not an army,” said Sgt. Nicholas Sowinski, 25, of Tempe, Ariz., assigned to the 4th Squadron, 14th Cavalry Regiment. “It limits our options.”
Hurriyah, a once-quiet mixed neighborhood of north Baghdad, serves as an example of the dilemma.
Just over a year ago, al-Sadr’s militiamen quietly slipped in and set up an office in the main outdoor market. They told Shiites they would protect them from a Sunni militia called Omar’s Army.
By early October, Shiite militiamen were roaming the streets of Hurriyah, kidnapping, killing and intimidating Sunnis. Handbills circulating last month warned that 10 Sunnis would die for every Shiite killed.
Late last month, Shiite gunmen killed four Sunnis outside a mosque in Hurriyah. The next day, a Sunni extremist group detonated a bomb in Sadr City, killing 37.
Many U.S. soldiers say their biggest problem is that local people are not helping to identify militiamen.
“Unless you catch (them) in the act, you’re not going to catch them at all,” said Staff Sgt. Justin Nelson, 26, of Stockton, Calif. “The main thing that you think about when you take someone in is: How’s the public going to take this?”
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