The struggle to regain control of Baghdad crossed into its fifth month Thursday with the last of 30,000 additional U.S. soldiers about to join an increasingly bitter fight. The security operation has failed to curb violence nationwide, and the number of American troops killed in the capital is on the rise.
But some potential bright spots have emerged in Baghdad's most lawless districts and troubled regions outside the capital: among them, a U.S. gambit to arm and train Sunni insurgents as proxy fighters against groups inspired by al-Qaida.
The risk is that the weapons could eventually be turned against Shiite civilians, the Shiite-led security forces or the Americans themselves. U.S. commanders, however, acknowledge that failure to bring order to the capital and the center of the country is an equally unsettling prospect.
The frustration doesn't stop there.
It's compounded by the perception in Washington that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and parliament continue to drag their heels on important reforms. They include a plan to share Iraq's oil wealth and an important set of laws aimed at reconciling the bitter Sunni-Shiite divisions — and the sectarian slaughter — that required the security operation in the first place.
The whole idea of the Baghdad crackdown was to create what U.S. officials have termed a "breathing space" for Iraqi politicians to get things done — the so-called benchmarks set down by the White House.
But, at the end of four months, violence is actually more acute nationwide, according to figures compiled by The Associated Press.
"We expect that the fight for security will get harder over the coming months as we engage an increasingly desperate enemy," said the No. 2 State Department official, John Negroponte, during a visit to Baghdad on Thursday. Less than a half-hour before his comments to reporters, a rocket landed in the city's protected Green Zone within 150 yards of Iraq's parliament.
Iraq's struggles condensed into capital
In many ways, the Baghdad security crackdown condenses the entire messy conundrum of Iraq — the strategies, rivalries and uncertainties — into the boundaries of the beleaguered capital and its environs. Nearly every clash or retaliation — no matter where in the country — ripples eventually through the streets of Baghdad.
The point was driven home when suspected al-Qaida bombers struck again at a Shiite holy site 60 miles north of Baghdad.
In the chaotic hours after Wednesday's attack — which brought down two minarets above the ruins of a mosque blown apart last year — U.S. troops went on heightened alert in Baghdad and the government imposed a citywide traffic curfew until Saturday. Then a Shiite bloc snubbed parliament in protest, effectively freezing any movement toward the reforms demanded by Washington.
It's nothing close to the blueprint of the Pentagon-crafted Baghdad security plan, which was launched Feb. 14 and will not reach full battle capacity until later this month.
American deaths have risen steadily. The capital continues to fragment into Sunni and Shiite redoubts.
The sectarian slaughter has dipped slightly in Baghdad, but is up dramatically outside the city, according to AP tallies compiled from hospital, police and military officials, as well as accounts from reporters and photographers. The figures are considered only a minimum, and the actual number is likely higher, as many killings go unreported or uncounted.
The positive ledger is largely a list of sustained, but possibly superficial, blows against Iraq's resilient armed factions.
Thousands of militants — Sunni insurgents, al-Qaida fighters, Shiite militiamen — have been killed or captured. Each day, U.S. forces find or destroy big weapons caches.
A glimmer of hope
But the biggest surprise — and current source of hope to gain the upper hand — has been the American opening to homegrown Sunni insurgents in Baghdad and surrounding areas as proxy fighters against factions inspired by al-Qaida.
U.S. commanders are following a trend born in the western Anbar Province, where U.S.-led forces have armed and trained Sunni groups. There, the Sunnis first took their cues from tribal elders angered by al-Qaida's extreme violence and Taliban-like strictures.
An extra enticement came later: a promise of a regular, paying, police job in the future.
Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, commander of the Third Infantry Division, which controls a dangerous swath of territory south of Baghdad known as the "Triangle of Death," said the recruitment, arming and training of Sunnis is a matter of pragmatism.
"There are folks out there, there are populations out there who have tendencies to do things like plant IEDs ('improvised explosive devices,' or roadside bombs) or they have equal tendencies not to plant IEDs. We are trying to push them on our side. That's what we're trying to do," Lynch said this week.
In Baghdad's Amariyah neighborhood near the International Airport, members of the insurgent Islamic Army have begun calling themselves the Wataniyoo Baghdad, or Patriots of Baghdad, and recently fought al-Qaida in cooperation with U.S. forces.
The men, mainly former military officers under Saddam Hussein, worked with American soldiers in late May during fierce battles to oust al-Qaida members from the district.
U.S. troops worked in concert with Wataniyoo Baghdad members, telling them to wear white kerchiefs around their necks to identify themselves during the fighting, according to residents interviewed by the AP. They refused to allow use of their names, fearing al-Qaida retribution.
With U.S. approval and help, the residents said, as many as 25 al-Qaida members were killed in two days of fighting.
"Sunni citizens of Amariyah that have been previously terrorized by al-Qaida are now resisting and want them gone. They're tired of the intimidation that included the murder of women," Lt. Col. Dale C. Kuehl, the battalion commander responsible for Amariyah, told AP at the time of the fighting.
Residents told AP the Wataniyoo Baghdad force is led by a man in his 30s who is known as Abu Abed. He was said to have been a Special Forces major in Saddam's military. Four of his brothers reportedly were killed by Shiite militiamen in western Baghdad's Iskan neighborhood over the past year.
U.S. deaths climbing
But solid numbers that measure casualties over the past four months point toward discouraging trends for Washington.
The average daily U.S. death toll nationwide has climbed, from an average of 2.88 troops each day for the four-month period before Feb. 14 to a daily average of 3.22 since the operation began, according to the AP count.
And President Bush has warned that the summer will be "bloody" for American forces as they are increasingly exposed to militant attacks during more frequent patrols and move into less-fortified neighborhood bases.
The death toll among Iraqi civilians, military and police around Iraq has dipped marginally when comparing figures for the four months before the security drive. The four-month death toll before the operation was 7,919 while the number for the past four months was 7,281, according to the AP count.
The pre-operation period, however, included the particularly deadly months of October through December last year, violence that in part led Bush to order more troops sent to Iraq.
In the statistical credit column for the security operation, deaths in Baghdad dipped to 3,764 in the period since Feb. 14, as compared to 5,585 in the four-month period preceding the crackdown. But killings linked to Sunni-Shiite showdowns outside the capital have risen.
In some of these areas, American forces and Iraqi officials also are pressing a similar project of outreach to Sunni fighters.
The U.S. military said in a statement Sunday that it brought together government officials and 130 tribal leaders in the Salahuddin provincial capital, Tikrit, Saddam's hometown. The statement, which quoted Lt. Col. Mark Edmonds, deputy commander of the 82nd Airborne Division unit in the area, said the local officials and tribal leaders reached a "historic" agreement to fight al-Qaida.
A key battleground is the volatile Diyala Province northeast of the capital — where many al-Qaida insurgents took refuge from the Baghdad security sweeps and Sunni vigilantes in Anbar.
Yaha Dira'a, a Shiite lawmaker from the area, said the Iraqi government recently sent $500,000 to local officials as seed money to encourage Diyala tribesmen to rally their young men to fight al-Qaida.
An AP reporter in Baqouba, the Diyala province capital, said the Americans paid members of the Islamic Army and 1920s Revolution Brigade, both Sunni insurgent organizations, about $250 each to man roadblocks against al-Qaida infiltration in the past month.
A Sunni tribal leader in Diyala said the U.S. soldiers came to him a month ago and asked him to tell his men to fight against al-Qaida and the Mahdi Army of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The leader spoke to AP on condition of anonymity because he was speaking negatively about an American offer.
He said his fellow tribesmen met among themselves and decided to tell the Americans they would cooperate when, in fact, they would not. They then took a truckload of Russian-made Kalashnikov automatic rifles and ammunition from the Iraqi army with U.S. military approval and melted back into the population.