Sunday, January 14, 2007

Iraqis get all-firing foretaste of Bush's final Baghdad gamble

The scene is set for a bloody showdown, report Jon Swain in Baghdad and Sarah Baxter in Washington
ABU HAMED received a grim foretaste of the increased violence that many Iraqis fear was heralded by President George W Bush’s announcement last week of a new drive to pacify Baghdad.

The fighting has seen him trapped with two blind daughters in one room in the city centre since Wednesday morning, without water or electricity and with nothing to eat but beans. Hamed, a 55-year-old retired civil servant, is now growing desperate.

“Is this the new paradise that the Americans said they would give us when they invaded our country?” he asked. “When is this nightmare going to end?” The fighting in Haifa Street, one of the oldest parts of the city, was more than just another day’s violence in Baghdad.

Involving 1,000 American and Iraqi troops backed by Apache helicopters and F-18 fighter jets, it was one of the most spectacular military operations there since the American invasion in spring 2003. Flames and clouds of smoke filled the area as the battle against Sunni insurgents raged. Helicopters raked the rooftops with rocket and machinegun fire, jets swooped down almost to rooftop level, and tanks and fighting vehicles took up supporting positions as innocent people cowered inside.

When the fighting died down, Iraqi officials said at least 50 insurgents had been killed. During the lull Hamed ventured outdoors in search of food for his daughters. He immediately came across the bodies of three men. They were curled up. “I could have sworn they were sleeping at first,” he said. “Then I saw their blood-soaked clothes and their open eyes and I knew they were dead.”

Haifa Street is less than a mile from the green zone, which houses both the American command and the government of Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister. The area had been cleared of insurgents several times. Once the troops left they always drifted back and continued their sectarian killings.

In a televised address last week, Bush admitted tersely that there had not been “enough Iraqi and American troops to secure neighbourhoods”. These “mistakes”, he insisted, had now been addressed. But sceptics say his change of tactics has come far too late.

Bush is in a desperate race to stabilise Iraq and preserve his legacy before Congress and the American public give up on the venture. Ominously the latest polls show that 66% of Americans oppose a surge in forces. The Iraqis are simply bracing for further bloodshed.

Under the Bush plan for “victory”, an extra 17,500 troops will be sent to Baghdad and another 4,000 to Anbar province, a Sunni stronghold to the west, bringing the American force back up to 150,000. The 82nd Airborne Division is on its way, and troop levels will build over three to four months.

Baghdad is to be carved into nine sectors, including Sadr City, a slum of 2m people where the black-robed Mahdi army of Moqtadr al-Sadr, the radical Shi’ite cleric, holds sway. In a radical departure from previous sweeps of the city, there will be 27 mini-bases, known as joint security stations. American troops will sleep and eat there alongside Iraqi forces.

“They can’t be commuters,” said Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow on defence policy at the Council on Foreign Relations who recently advised Bush on Iraq. “There is going to be a heavy emphasis on a high-density presence.”

In each sector of the city American troops will be joined by one Iraqi army brigade and the Iraqi police, giving a local face to the surge. The sectors will be “gated” — sealed off by checkpoints and roadblocks as well as existing barriers such as roads and rivers.

The aim is to force insurgents out of the secured zones, while residents will be issued with IDs and protected round the clock. The unemployed will be put to work in the hope of reducing the incentives for extremism as part of the third tier of the policy of “clear, hold and build”.

The Americans intend to start their surge in a handful of ethnically mixed Sunni-Shi’ite areas, where they hope to prove their even-handedness before moving on to subdue Sadr City, Baghdad’s most explosive neighbourhood.

The Shi’ite-led government of Maliki has other ideas. In an early sign that he might not live up to his promises to the US, he is hoping his forces will never have to confront Sadr’s.

An aide to Maliki said the push would begin in Sunni neighbourhoods on the outskirts of the capital such as Salman Pak and Abu Ghraib — the areas “sending the car bombs into Baghdad” — and, if not, the prime minister “would not be very enthusiastic”.

“He argues that the best way to deal with the Mahdi army is to bring down the level of terrorist attacks so ordinary Shi’ites don’t feel the need for the Mahdi,” the aide said.

The surge could leave Americans exposed to attacks on all sides. A sheikh from the Mahdi army and a Sunni insurgent leader have already vowed to send the new troops home in body bags. More soldiers will inevitably create more targets for insurgents, as Bush acknowledged when he addressed the troops in Fort Benning, Georgia last week.

The surge, the president said, would require “sacrifice”, but with more than 3,000 US dead, how much more bloodshed are the Americans willing to accept? For some military families it is important to have one last push. Private Ross McGinnis, a 19-year-old soldier, was killed last month when he flung himself on top of a hand grenade that landed in his Humvee. His selfless act saved the life of four friends.

His mother Romayne believes the Americans must press on. “There is good being accomplished in Iraq. If we pull out now, everything we’ve tried to accomplish will falter.”

But Tina Smarro has just learnt that her son, Mick, 25, who is stationed at Fort Benning, will be joining the surge in a matter of weeks.

“My son doesn’t want to go,” she said. “He has already been to Iraq once. He knows what’s going on there. I’m devastated. How many more mothers are going to be told their son is dead?”

MUCH depends for the success of the operation on General David Petraeus, the newly appointed commander in Iraq, who is known as King David for his skill in restoring order to Mosul after the American invasion.

One of the army’s “thinking” generals with a PhD from Princeton, he is the author of the military’s new counterinsurgency doctrine for fighting 21st- century wars.

Petraeus believes American and Iraqi casualties can be kept to a minimum by a policy of “cordon and knock”. Instead of kicking down doors, soldiers will politely visit homes where possible, making inquiries and offering assistance. The hope is that in such a tightly controlled environment, the death squads will find it impossible to operate.

It may be wishful thinking. “If it is a short-term surge, the rational strategy for the Sunnis and Mahdi army is to wait it out, but if they are trigger-happy, civilians will get killed no matter how discriminating the troops are and that always alienates the local population,” said Biddle.

Petraeus has been dusting off the British colonial government’s counterinsurgency programme, which was used successfully in Malaya in the 1950s. The rural population was resettled in fortified villages away from the jungle and isolated from guerillas.

But when the Americans applied the same strategic hamlet model in South Vietnam, the insurgents were locked up with the local population and ended up recruiting them. The same may well prove to be true of Baghdad’s “gated” communities.

It took the British 12 years to defeat the communist insurgency in Malaya. In Iraq, the Americans do not have that much time. In evidence to the Senate armed services committee last week, Robert Gates, the defence secretary, suggested the extra deployment of troops would last “months, not years”.

After that, he suggested hopefully, it might be possible to draw down troops by the end of this year. Instead of reassuring his critics, he raised fears among supporters of the surge such as Senator John McCain, a 2008 presidential contender, that it would not last long enough to make a difference.

Some experts contend the new counterinsurgency doctrine has already become an irrelevance in Iraq, where the gravest threat to the security is not from rebels but from sectarian strife between Sunnis and Shi’ites.

“The main difference between an insurgency and a civil war is the extent to which you can depend on the local armed forces,” said Biddle. “We’re going to be dependent on the Iraqi forces and it’s a mistake. They are penetrated by the militias they are trying to suppress.”

All over the city Shi’ite and Sunni extremists have driven people out of mixed communities with death threats, kidnapping and worse. Last week it was the turn of Husain Ali Mahmoud, a Shi’ite civil servant.

He lived with his wife and five children in Saydia, a mixed area. On Wednesday he arrived home to find a piece of paper pinned to his door. It was a death threat sent by the Sunni “Ahel Al Hak platoon” and it gave him 48 hours to leave his home or die.

Mahmoud did not hesitate. “I grabbed my wife and children and we left the same day. Now we are living just in one room in my father-in-law’s house. I knew this warning was real and they would kill us all if I stayed.”

A few days earlier Hamid Mohammed al-Suhail, a respected elderly sheikh who has been seeking Sunni-Shi’ite reconciliation, was kidnapped and a $100,000 ransom demanded from his family. After the family said it could not pay, his body was dumped. The sheikh had been tortured with a power drill.

Some of the worst crimes have been committed by the largely Shi’ite Iraqi police or defence forces working with the Mahdi army. Rapes, beatings and killings have become commonplace and nobody is immune.

Earlier this month two sisters, aged 90 and 86, were beaten by armed men who burst into their home and raped their maid before stealing jewellery and cash.

Last Thursday Manhel Alrawei was wounded by shrapnel from a mortar that exploded near his car as he went to buy cigarettes. He said he tried to go to hospital. “I ran away when I saw I was going to be kidnapped by Shi’ite militia,” he said. “Now I am treating my wounds myself in a very primitive way.

“If these are the objectives of the new security plan, which they are applying only against Sunnis, there will never be a calm Iraq because we will not stand and wait to die,” he said.

MANY Iraqis are disillusioned with Maliki, believing the prime minister to be sectarian and weak, yet the Americans’ plan for Iraq depends heavily on the quality of his leadership.

Maliki has barely bothered to conceal his lack of enthusiasm for welcoming more US forces and he reneged on troop commitments for the Operation Forward Together in Baghdad last summer, the failed forerunner of the surge.

In Sadr City, Abu Ali, one of the leaders of the Mahdi army, said: “If Sadr orders us to give up our weapons we will do it. But at the same time the Sunnis should do the same. We do not care about the government. We have our leader and are waiting for his command. We have only one enemy — American forces.”

In these circumstances, US experts — including General John Abizaid, the outgoing Middle East commander — have questioned whether an increase in troops can succeed. Bush’s gamble has met huge scepticism.

“I’m extremely uneasy. We’re holding a bad hand of cards and it’s late in the game,” said retired General Barry McCaffrey, who has been consulted frequently on Iraq by the president.

Bush is wooing top Republican congressmen at Camp David this weekend in an effort to staunch the defections on his Iraq policy. This week Senate Democrats hope to persuade enough Republicans to back a resolution opposing the push to deliver an embarrassing defeat to the president. In contrast to her 2008 rivals, Senator Hillary Clinton stayed away from the airwaves last week but was in Iraq yesterday gathering fresh political ammunition.

If Bush cannot maintain a level of support in Congress and the country for his policy, it could quickly collapse in acrimony. Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of state, is the Middle East, hoping to drum up support for the surge while holding out the vague prospect of progress on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Iraq’s neighbours are watching anxiously as the Americans appear bent on escalating tension with Iran.

There have been a series of raids against Iranians in Iraq, including the detention of six Iranians at a government office flying the Iranian flag in the Kurdish town of Irbil. Rice warned that America would not “stand idly by” if Iran tried to disrupt efforts to stabilise Iraq.

Administration officials are already pondering alternative strategies for Iraq, should the surge fail. Dumping Maliki is an obvious first step. According to one congressman, Bush told him on the phone last week: “This has to work or you’re out.”

There is speculation that Maliki could be replaced by a new coalition led by vice-president Adel Abdel Mahdi, but he might find it just as difficult to crack down on the Shi’ite militias and conciliate the Sunnis.

Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution has been studying a variety of Plan Bs. The installation of a “strongman” was increasingly tempting for the Americans, but it was questionable whether one man or junta could unite the warring country, he said.

A second option is “soft partition” — the “tried and tested way” of solving ethnic disputes, as happened in Yugoslavia. It is O’Hanlon’s preferred choice, but in the view of most experts it will ignite more fighting.

Then there is the “80% solution”, said to be favoured by Dick Cheney, the vice-president. The Shi’ites (60% of the population), with the support of the Kurds (at 20%) would force the minority Sunnis “to accept the reality of defeat”.

Viewed from this perspective, the surge may be the least worst course of action, but it does not feel that way to the Iraqis. The city’s population is apprehensively awaiting the arrival of the new American forces.

More and more people are staying at home. There is less traffic on the streets. More are trying to leave. And Iraq’s most popular fortune-teller, Abu Ali Sheibani, who has a four-hour show beamed daily from Lebanon — and who got it right by predicting Saddam Hussein would meet a “cold death” at the end of the year — has told Iraqis the country will face another ordeal in February. He has predicted “more war, more bloodshed”.

Neocon family calls the shots

FEW neoconservatives can claim to have had as much influence on the course of the Iraq war as the trio of scholars in the Kagan family, writes Sarah Baxter.

Frederick Kagan, 36, is the author of Choosing Victory, a blueprint for the surge adopted by President George W Bush. Just as everybody had begun writing off the influence of the neocons at the White House, genial, chubby-faced Frederick gave the muscular intellectuals a lease of life.

It was at Camp David last June that Kagan, a military historian and fellow of the American Enterprise Institute, outlined his plans for pouring more troops into Iraq to Bush and his war cabinet.

Donald Rumsfeld, the then defence secretary, was unimpressed, but Kagan’s views got another hearing when Bush was searching for ways to ditch the seemingly defeatist recommendations of James Baker’s Iraq Study Group. “Wow, you mean we can still win this war?” a grateful Bush reportedly said.

Kagan’s father Donald, a classicist at Yale University and expert on the Peloponnesian war, could be described as an intellectual progenitor of the conflict. Like many early neocons, Donald, 74, was a leftwinger in his youth but veered to the right over the Vietnam war.

In 1997 he was a signatory with Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz, now president of the World Bank, of the founding declaration of the neocon Project for a New American Century, which called for “a Reaganite policy of military strength and foreign clarity”.

A year before the September 11 attacks, Donald co-authored a book with Frederick called While America Sleeps about the delusion that the US was invulnerable.

“The peace does not keep itself and though it may be unfashionable to say so, the world needs a policeman,” Donald said.

But it was his elder son Robert, 48, a fellow of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who nailed Iraq under Saddam Hussein as the problem, writing an article called A Way to Oust Saddam during the Clinton years.

Robert, who is married to the American ambassador to Nato, went on to write an essay, Americans are from Mars, after September 11, sparking a heated debate on the growing transatlantic split on the merits of war.

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