The U.S. military buildup has brought some relief from bombs and bullets to Baghdad’s battered people. But so far, it has failed at its overarching purpose — getting Iraqis to agree to the political compromises that U.S. commanders themselves believe crucial to a lasting peace.
That’s the sticking point as Congress this week judges how effective the American military surge has been — and what to do next.
The buildup was designed to tamp down sectarian slaughter in Baghdad so that religious and ethnic-based parties could agree on how to share power in the new Iraq.
Instead of coming together, Iraq’s Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds are drifting further apart. Neighborhoods in the capital are fragmented.
Major Sunni and Shiite factions have bolted Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s weak and unpopular national government. Both the Shiite and Sunni communities — armed groups and political parties alike — are riddled with factions.
Many Iraqis, bitter and traumatized, complain they don’t feel any effects of improved security — which were supposed to include economic revival.
“The general situation is still like it was before, with some slight improvement in recent months,” said Raed Fawzi, who sells men’s clothing in a mostly Shiite area of east Baghdad. “But in general, there is no promising progress.”
That’s not likely to be the message that U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and the top commander Gen. David Petraeus will deliver to Congress. They are expected to acknowledge the gravity of Iraq’s security and political crisis but argue for more time, pointing to favorable trends.
Progress, amid violence
Some progress is clear. But statistics themselves present a mixed picture of conditions in Iraq.
American combat deaths are down from last spring, and U.S. officials say sectarian killings in Baghdad have dropped by more than 50 percent from a high point last winter.
But civilian deaths nationwide rose last month to their second highest level this year — at least 1,809, according to an Associated Press count.
About 4.4 million Iraqis — out of a prewar population of 26 million — have fled their homes to escape the violence, half to neighboring countries such as Syria and Jordan, according to the International Organization for Migration.
Another 60,000 flee every month.
They leave behind a Baghdad radically altered from before the war, when Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds and Christians lived side by side. Now, a neighborhood becomes calm only after its minority community has fled. Armed men keep outsiders away.
None of that means the troop buildup has not achieved some success.
Since the last of the U.S. reinforcements hit the streets in June, American forces have moved to secure routes into Baghdad and curb the inward flow of car bombs and fighters. American soldiers also swept through Baqouba, 35 miles north of the capital, to drive out al-Qaida.
‘Enemy No. 1’
Those operations appear to have reduced the high-profile car bombings in the capital. U.S. commanders maintain that a more robust U.S. presence has given more Iraqis confidence to resist the gunmen who ruled their lives.
Senior commanders also insist al-Qaida in Iraq, the Sunni extremist group branded “enemy No. 1,” is on the run.
But analysts fear that without political agreement, Shiite militias and Sunni gunmen will re-emerge once American troops have gone.
“No military effort can be sustained without major progress on the political front, which the surge was supposed to bring about in the first place, but hasn’t,” said Joost Hiltermann, Middle East director of the International Crisis Group.
U.S. officials praised an announcement last month that Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish political leaders had agreed to some “benchmark” legislation, including a plan to share oil wealth.
But Sunni politicians said the agreement was not enough to lure them back into the government. And without the Sunnis, the plan won’t win broad public support.
Sunni politicians believe the Shiite religious parties that now dominate the government have little interest in meaningful accommodation and have tacitly allowed Shiite militias to drive Sunnis from their homes to solidify Shiite control of the capital.
In turn, Shiites believe many Sunnis will never give up violence until they regain the power they once enjoyed under Saddam Hussein.
While politicians squabble in Baghdad, much of the Shiite south — with 30 percent of the population and most of the oil wealth — has fallen under the influence of Shiite militias, some with close ties to Shiite-dominated Iran.
With the national government in deadlock, U.S. officials have begun encouraging reconciliation at the local level. The model is Anbar, the vast Sunni province where tribal sheiks turned against al-Qaida and sought cooperation with the Americans.
The Sunni revolt against al-Qaida led to a dramatic improvement in security in Anbar cities such as Fallujah and Ramadi. Iraqis who had been sitting on the sidelines — or planting roadside bombs to kill Americans — have now joined with U.S. forces to hunt down al-Qaida.
Still, Anbar is not secure, accounting for 18 percent of the U.S. deaths in Iraq this year, including four Marines killed Thursday. That makes it the second deadliest province after Baghdad.
‘Iraq will still be unstable’
Nonetheless, U.S. officials now speak of applying the “Anbar model” elsewhere, including the Shiite south.
Yet the Shiite-led national government has been slow to embrace the tribal groups, and even some Sunnis resent the new order.
“Things are going bad,” said Fawzi Abdullah al-Jubouri, a 55-year-old Sunni in Ramadi. “Tribal factions are controlling matters in this town. Corruption has spread in government offices and some terrorist cells are still active here.”
The U.S. is anxious to recruit tribal fighters to compensate for the weakness in the Iraqi army and police — both infiltrated by Shiite militias and Sunni militants.
Last Thursday, a panel of retired senior U.S. military and police officers said Iraq’s security forces would be unable to take control of the whole country over the next 18 months.
“I don’t expect any improvement in the deteriorating security situation in Iraq as long as political rivalries and militias are the main factors that govern Iraq,” said Farhan Ahmed al-Khalidi, a 33-year-old Shiite. “Iraq will still be unstable.”