Violence in Iraq, as measured by casualties among troops and civilians, has edged higher despite the U.S.-led security push in Baghdad, the Pentagon told Congress on Wednesday.
The required quarterly report, which surveyed violence from Feb. 10 to May 7, found that the average number of Iraqi civilians killed or wounded each day was more than 100, nearly double the daily toll from the same period one year ago. The number of daily U.S. casualties was about 25, slightly higher than a year ago.
The average weekly number of attacks across Iraq for the reporting period surpassed 1,000, compared to about 600 weekly attacks for the same period one year ago. More than 75 percent of the attacks were aimed at U.S. forces, according to the report, which also examined political and economic developments in Iraq.
The Pentagon raised questions about Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s ability to fulfill a pledge made in January to prohibit political interference in security operations and to allow no safe havens for sectarian militias.
Overall, however, the report said it was too soon to judge whether the security crackdown was working.
The security operation was launched Feb. 14 and is still unfolding as the last of an additional 28,000 or so U.S. forces are getting into position in and around the Iraqi capital. The Pentagon is required by Congress to provide its initial assessment of the operation in July, and Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, has said he will report in September.
Despite the increased presence of U.S. and Iraqi troops in Baghdad, the military reports that l-Qaida still maintained the ability to conduct "high-profile, mass-casualty attacks" in the city.
Wednesday’s report comes amid new fears of sectarian retaliation following an attack on a revered Shiite shrine in Samarra. The Askariya shrine was the site of a 2006 bombing that shattered its famous Golden Dome and unleashed a wave of retaliatory sectarian violence that still bloodies Iraq. Sunni extremists of al-Qaida were quickly blamed for the latest attack, which triggered an indefinite curfew on vehicle traffic and large gatherings in Baghdad.
Violence spreading beyond Baghdad
Wednesday’s broader report, the eighth in a series, said that while violence fell in the capital and in Anbar province west of Baghdad during the February-May period, it increased in other areas, particularly in the outlying areas of Baghdad province and in Diyala province northeast of Baghdad and in the northern province of Nineva.
The report described Iraq’s violence as mainly a result of illegally armed groups engaging in a “cycle of sectarian and politically motivated violence, using tactics that include indiscriminate bombing, murder, executions and indirect fire (rocket and mortar attacks) to intimidate and to provide sectarian conflict.”
Some signs of progress
The report cited promising developments in some areas, such as the Anbar province where Sunni tribes and some insurgent groups have turned against al-Qaida. U.S. military officials tell NBC News that such progress has occurred mostly in predominately Sunni or Shiite areas, and not in those areas with a more contentious mix of sectarian groups.
Unlike the previous such report to Congress, submitted in March, the Pentagon made no reference to the debate over whether Iraq is in a civil war. In March it said “some elements of the situation in Iraq are properly descriptive of a ‘civil war.”’
It noted that al-Maliki had pledged in January, when President Bush announced his commitment to send more U.S. troops to Baghdad, that there would be no political interference in the security crackdown and no sectarian favoritism.
“To date, operations in Baghdad indicate that Iraqi government delivery on these commitments has been uneven,” the report said. “For example, there have been reports of political involvement by some leaders in tactical and operational decisions that bypass the standard chain of (military) command.”
Bleak assessment of reconciliation
The report offered a less-than-optimistic outlook for political reconciliation among the rival sectarian groups in Iraq. It said Shiite fear of a Sunni return to power and splits within the Shiite community “will continue to impede formation of a ‘Shiite consensus’ and complicate reconciliation with the Sunnis.”
On the positive side, the report noted that Sunni Arab tribal leaders in Anbar province, where there is no sizable Shiite population, have been joining with U.S. and Iraqi government forces to fight al-Qaida forces.
“With the right mechanisms, these Sunni leaders could pursue reconciliation with the government of Iraq,” the report said, adding that the Sunnis currently are limited in their political effectiveness by a lack of unity.