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'Surge' working, but Iraq still on edge of chaos

Image: Sons of Iraq
A U.S. soldier inspects a checkpoint as an volunteer Iraqi civilian holds his rifle and smokes during a patrol at Salman Pak City, Iraq on March 5.  Petros Giannakouris / AP file
/ Source: NBC News

WASHINGTON — On a recent Sunday stroll down the muddy main streets of Hawijah, Iraq, where water filled the craters left by improvised explosive device (IED) roadside bombs, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, saw progress.

In this restive Sunni enclave north of Baghdad insurgents once launched frequent deadly attacks against American forces. But now many former insurgents have joined militias known as the “Sons of Iraq” to fight al-Qaida, and overall violence here is down.

However, Mullen warned that any progress in security here and throughout Iraq is "fragile." One look at the Sons of Iraq and it's easy to see why.

A small army of U.S. soldiers guarding Mullen warily eyed the dozens of young, heavily-armed Sunnis who lined the route, looking more like an urban street gang than an organized militia. While on the lookout for an insurgent or al-Qaida ambush, the Americans' distrust of these young guns ran high.

As one of the militia struggled to hoist a heavy machine gun, I asked one soldier, "What would happen if he squeezed off a shot?" The soldier quickly replied, “We'd f****** kill him.”

Simmering problems
There are currently 91,000 Sons of Iraq. Originally called Concerned Local Citizens, or CLCs, their decision to ally themselves with the Americans in the battle against al-Qaida has played a major role in the overall reduction of violence under the U.S. military's surge. But tensions among all sides still simmer.

On a walking tour of the al-Doura district in south Baghdad, the neighborhood's unofficial mayor, Abd Moyad al Jabouri, warned that unless the Iraqi government fully recognizes and pays the salaries of the Sunni CLCs, they may resort once more to violence.

“If you are cheating them,” said Jabouri, “they will fight again … against the Americans, against the government.”

This volatile relationship is one of the reasons that Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, says it's too early to declare the "surge" operation a success. "It's never been easy," he told us. "There are legitimate concerns about hiring individuals who in some cases may be former insurgents."

Will the surge hold?
A senior military official from the Pentagon went even further. He fears that early gains from the "surge" may not be sustainable.

Despite the early withdrawal of one of the five additional combat brigades that were sent to Iraq for the "surge," the official cautioned, “We may not know until [withdrawal of] the third or fourth brigades,” whether the situation will hold.

The official also said that if all five of the additional U.S. combat brigades that made up the escalation are sent home by the end of July, there has to be a pause in any further withdrawals, “a minimum of four to six weeks,” suggesting it should be even longer than that. Petraeus appears to agree.

Petraeus is committed to sending five combat brigades back home this summer. “We intend to live up to our part of the bargain,” he said, “unless something catastrophic takes place.”

It's the “something” that worries Petraeus. So much so that he's against sending U.S. combat brigades from Baghdad up north to Mosul where American forces are locked in a fierce fight with a resilient group of al-Qaida fighters and insurgents. Petraeus fears losing what security gains have already been made in Baghdad. “They key is to hang onto what you've got,” said Petraeus. “You cannot, in your eagerness, go after something new to start to play whack-a-mole again."

‘Very challenging’
Despite the significant gains made in Iraqi security — overall violence is down 60 to 70 percent against American forces and Iraqi civilians alike — Petraeus worries about what else remains to be done.

He warns that the slow pace of Iraqi political and economic progress, high unemployment, and lack of reliable basic services, such as electricity, all threaten to derail whatever security gains have been made militarily. “This is very, very challenging,” Petraeus told me. “There's nothing, I don’t think, that ranks in difficulty with this.”

As the war in Iraq approaches its sixth year and the number of American service members killed nears 4,000, the U.S. military role still appears far from over. While U.S. and Iraqi officials have begun talks on a long-term strategic agreement, senior military predict that significant numbers of American troops will still be on the ground in Iraq for at least, the next three to four years.

Jim Miklaszewski is NBC News' Chief Pentagon Correspondent.