Iraq attacks at highest level in two years

Iraqis mourn over the coffin of their re
Iraqis mourn over the coffin of their relative killed in Sadr City's bombings in November.Qassem Zein / AFP-Getty Images file
/ Source: NBC News and news services

Attacks on U.S. and Iraqi troops and Iraqi civilians jumped sharply in recent months to the highest level since Iraq regained its sovereignty in June 2004, the Pentagon told Congress on Monday in the latest indication of that country’s spiraling violence.

In a report issued the same day Robert Gates took over as defense secretary, the Pentagon said that from mid-August to mid-November, the weekly average number of attacks increased 22 percent from the previous three months.

At a ceremonial swearing-in attended by President Bush, Gates warned that failure in Iraq would be a “calamity that would haunt our nation, impair our credibility and endanger Americans for decades to come.” He said he intended to go to Iraq soon to get the “unvarnished” advice of U.S. commanders on how to stabilize the country.

American casualties also rise
According to the Pentagon report, the worst violence from August to November was in Baghdad and in the western province of Anbar, long the focus of activity by Sunni insurgents.

U.S. commanders moved several thousand more U.S. troops into Baghdad last summer in a bid to tamp down the bloodshed. The move worked briefly, but the violence rebounded.

A bar chart in the Pentagon’s report to Congress gave no exact numbers but indicated the weekly average had approached 1,000 in the latest period, compared to about 800 per week from the May-to-August period. Statistics provided separately by the Pentagon said weekly attacks had averaged 959 in the latest period.

American casualties, dead and wounded, rose from 19 to 25 per day, up 32 percent in the last three months.

For the first time, Shiite militants were blamed for more murders and executions than Sunni insurgents and al-Qaida. The report also said Iraqi police were complicit in the slaughter, allowing Shiite death squads to move freely and warning them of upcoming U.S. military operations.

Iraqis lose confidence in future
The report said the Iraqi government’s failure to end sectarian violence has eroded ordinary Iraqis’ confidence in their future. That conclusion reflects some of the Bush administration’s doubt about the ability of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to make the hard decisions U.S. officials insist are needed to quell the violence.

“The failure of the government to implement concrete actions in these areas has contributed to a situation in which, as of October 2006, there were more Iraqis who expressed a lack of confidence in their government’s ability to improve the situation than there were in July 2006,” it said, calling for urgent action in Baghdad.

Issued just hours after Gates took the oath of office to replace Donald H. Rumsfeld, and amid an effort by the Bush administration to find a new war strategy, the report made no mention of a timetable for ending U.S. military involvement.

It said that as security conditions permit and the Iraqi army and police become more capable, U.S. forces will move out of the cities, reduce the number of bases from which they operate and conduct fewer visible patrols. That has been the basic strategy for some time, but it has not been fully implemented because of the explosion in sectarian killings this year and disappointments in the pace of developing Iraqi security forces.

The development of an Iraqi army and police is making progress, the report said, but much remains to be done.

It said, for example, that the goal of training and equipping an Iraqi army of about 137,000 soldiers is 98 percent completed, although it also noted that far fewer troops are actually available for duty on any given day due to absenteeism, casualties, desertions and leaves of absence.

Lt. Gen. John Sattler, the plans and strategy chief for the Joint Chiefs, told reporters Monday that of the approximately 322,000 Iraqi troops and police now trained and equipped, only about 280,000 are available for duty.

Jim Miklaszewski, NBC's chief Pentagon correspondent, and The Associated Press contributed to this report.