Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said the ongoing increase of nearly 30,000 U.S. troops in the country has achieved "modest progress" but has also met with setbacks such as a rise in devastating suicide bombings and other problems that leave uncertain whether his counterinsurgency strategy will ultimately succeed.
Assessing the first two months of the U.S. and Iraqi plan to pacify the capital, senior American commanders -- including Petraeus; Adm. William J. Fallon, head of U.S. forces in the Middle East; Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, commander of military operations in Iraq; and top regional commanders -- see mixed results. They said that while an increase in U.S. and Iraqi troops has improved security in Baghdad and Anbar province, attacks have risen sharply elsewhere. Critical now, they said in interviews this week, is for Iraqi leaders to forge the political compromises needed for long-term stability.
The commanders search for signs of success. On Friday night at dusk, Petraeus boarded a helicopter to look for scenes of normalcy and progress from above the maelstrom of the capital.
"On a bad day, I actually fly Baghdad just to reassure myself that life still goes on," he said, leaning back and propping his legs on the seat in front of him.
The aircraft banked right and Petraeus caught sight of a patch of relative calm. "He's actually watering the grass!" Petraeus said with a laugh, peering down at a man tending a soccer field, with children playing nearby.
Seconds later, the aircraft pivoted again, exposing boarded-up shops on a deserted, trash-strewn street. A bit farther, along the Tigris River, a hulking pile of twisted steel came into view -- the remains of the Sarafiya bridge, blown up April 12 amid a series of spectacular and deadly suicide bombings.
"That's a setback," Petraeus said, his voice lower. "That breaks your heart."
And so it went, all across the city. Directing the pilot to "break left" or "roll out," he scanned the landscape for even tiny improvements -- a pile of picked-up trash, an Iraqi police car out on patrol, a short line at one gas station -- as if gathering mental ammunition for the next wave of Baghdad carnage. An amusement park, its rides lit up, merited a full circle.
"We have certainly pulled neighborhoods back from the brink," Petraeus said, comparing the signs of revitalization now to his initial shock at the stark deterioration of parts of the capital upon his arrival in February.
So far, the deployment of additional troops in Baghdad is only 60 percent complete, and incoming units in many parts of the city are still conducting initial, labor-intensive operations to "clear" neighborhoods before setting up patrol bases, a pillar of Petraeus's counterinsurgency plan. Iraq's security forces have contributed the nine battalions pledged for the Baghdad operations, and rotate those forces every 90 days.
The bases -- which so far include 21 combat outposts and 26 joint security stations run together with Iraqi forces -- are a key building block in the effort to increase security for Baghdad residents. Another part of the strategy is to wall off communities along their traditional boundaries to control population access and prevent attacks.
"That's part of the concrete caterpillar," Petraeus said, pointing out a barrier going up in a neighborhood in west Baghdad. "That market was shut completely down when I took command -- now it has 200 shops," he said.
The walls helped divert the multiple car bombs in Baghdad on Wednesday that killed more than 170 people. Three exploded short of their targets, but the fourth and deadliest vehicle bomber was able to enter a market because someone had removed part of the barrier to gain easier access, U.S. officials said.
'Risk of a major setback'
U.S. commanders say sectarian murders fell from 1,200 in Baghdad in January to fewer than 400 in March. Markets are reopening, and a few thousand families have trickled back to areas they had fled.
But they agreed that among the most troubling trends in Iraq has been the proliferation of suicide bomb attacks, because they risk reigniting sectarian revenge killings and undermining the government. Suicide bombings have increased 30 percent over the six weeks that ended in early April, according to military data.
"When you have these big explosions, there is a very high risk of a major setback because it sends a message of instability and insecurity," said Fallon, head of U.S. Central Command.
It is virtually impossible to eliminate the suicide bombings, the commanders acknowledged. "I don't think you're ever going to get rid of all the car bombs," Petraeus said. "Iraq is going to have to learn -- as did, say, Northern Ireland -- to live with some degree of sensational attacks." A more realistic goal, he said, but one that has eluded U.S. and Iraqi forces, is to prevent the bombers from causing "horrific damage."
Another major concern shared by U.S. military leaders is whether the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is capable of solidifying gains in security as well as making the crucial political compromises needed to achieve peace. "Will the Iraqis generate the capacity in their security forces and in their government to sustain this over time? That's what keeps me up at night," Odierno said.
Iraqi leaders "come from narrow political backgrounds . . . but now there is an expectation they will be able to make decisions well beyond the group they represent. This is struggle for them," Fallon said.
As the Maliki government moves slowly, and patience in the United States wears thin, commanders worry that their window for action is rapidly closing. "We're trying to somehow speed up the Baghdad clock and put time on the Washington clock. That's all we can do at the end of the day," Petraeus said.
'More suspicious, more worried'
U.S. commanders said that at least so far, the bombings of Shiite neighborhoods in Baghdad have not incited Shiite militias to launch a new wave of revenge killings. Shiite militias, moreover, including the powerful Mahdi Army of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, have not staged major resistance to U.S. and Iraqi forces. Still, they acknowledge that Sadr's intentions remain unclear.
The increased presence of U.S. and Iraqi soldiers and police in the neighborhoods has helped the forces more easily track down death squads. A death squad leader in the Shiite neighborhood of Sadr City was detained recently, yielding a wealth of intelligence on the militia and its Iranian connections, according to a U.S. military official.
At the joint command headquarters for the Baghdad operation, Iraqi commander Lt. Gen. Abud Qanbar Hashim met Saturday with Fallon and Odierno and discussed which parts of Baghdad needed more troops. "I am very optimistic. I think we will succeed" with the additional forces, Hashim told Fallon.
Despite initial concerns, the existence of two separate command chains for Iraqi and U.S. forces has not caused major problems, the commanders said. Col. Shannon Davis, the U.S. advisory team chief for the Iraqi command, said that initially Iraqi officers lacked good communications, and instead were "handing around Post-it notes and using cellphones." The U.S. headquarters across the hallway is fully automated and able to point out incidents that the Iraqis might miss, Davis said.
The increase of 4,000 more Marines in Anbar province has helped lower violence in what has long been a Sunni insurgent stronghold. "The surge forces gave us the ability to go outside the population centers" to the lowlands where insurgents trained, stored weapons and took refuge, said Maj. Gen. Walter Gaskin, U.S. commander in Anbar.
Flying over Baghdad as the lights of the city came on, Petraeus passed by the city's southern flank, where he led the 101st Airborne Division in the invasion of Iraq in 2003. In an earlier interview, he had said he feels a sense of obligation to help Iraqi people, because "General [Colin] Powell was right, it is Pottery [Barn] rules." But on this, his third tour in Iraq, Petraeus returned to a society that is "more fearful, more suspicious, more worried" and therefore more difficult to help.
"I wouldn't be honest if I didn't say that this has an effect on all of us," he said. "And so every now and then we just get on the helicopter. . . . You go see some projects that you know have been built. . . . You see some police stations and you see people just sort of driving on, people getting on with their lives, and it sort of reassures you. 'Hey, these people are survivors.' "