BAGHDAD (AFP) -Four years after the invasion of Iraq, US commanders now believe a new strategy backed up by tens of thousands of extra troops at last has a chance to put an end to the sectarian slaughter.
Hard fighting and more casualties lie ahead, they warn, but with Iraqi leaders and security forces now pulling in the right direction, the military says there is reason to hope that the new security plan will prevail.
Unfortunately, these promising signs come after more than 3,200 US troops and tens of thousands of Iraqis have died in the past four years, and as public support for the war in the United States itself is plummeting beyond the point of no return.
With many candidates in next year’s US presidential election likely to run on a “troops out” ticket, and the entire Middle East region in state of high tension, time is running out for General David Petraeus and his soldiers.
The new US commander took over last month trailing great expectations, but he warns it will take months for his plan to make a difference to the strength of the Al-Qaeda insurgency or the savagery of the Sunni-Shiite conflict.
“The Washington clock’s ticking, and the Baghdad clock’s ticking, and we wish we could wind the Baghdad clock a little faster,” Petraeus said this week in the western insurgent town of Ramadi, while insisting politics will not distract him from the task.
The irony of this sudden urgency is not lost on officers in the field.
While none will publicly criticise civilian officials, such as former defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, they respond with wry smiles when asked why the new tactics employed by Petraeus’ command were not adopted three years ago.
Instead, they talk enthusiastically of the so-called “surge strategy,” which will see more than 25,000 extra US troops pour into Baghdad and by June bring total force numbers to 160,000 for the first time since 2003.
Most of these reinforcements will join Operation Fardh al-Qanoon (Imposing Law), a plan developed with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, to clear the capital of insurgents and militia fighters and then hold the ground.
Already, and for the first time, more than 25 fortified “Joint Security Stations” and around 50 “Combat Outposts” have been built to house heavily armed US units alongside their Iraqi comrades in the heart of the city.
Initial results have been promising, despite a spate of car bomb attacks by Sunni insurgents, as Shiite militias such as radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army have melted away and offered no organised resistance.
Sectarian murders and kidnappings are down dramatically — by around two thirds — according to General Joseph Fil of the US Army’s 1st Cavalry Divison, and the commander of Multinational Division Baghdad.
According to Fil, the new strategy will take longer than earlier sweeps of Baghdad, but have a more lasting effect on security. Previous operations failed because insurgents returned in strength once US troops left.
“Sometimes when they came back it was worse than it was before. The cycle was about six weeks,” he said, warning that the failure of previous initiatives had made Iraqis suspicious of the new plan.
“There’s a sense of suspense in the air, a sense of suspense and anticipation among the Iraqi people, and I think it is being met by this operation,” he said.
As much as on military operations such as the Fardh al-Qanoon surge, success for the US military and the Iraqi government depends on building a peaceful political consensus in the country and in the region.
Both Baghdad and Washington have been keen to blame neighouring countries for their problems in Iraq.
The White House accuses Iran of arming Shiite militias and in particular of sending components for the “explosively formed penetrator” — an armour-piercing roadside bomb that has killed 170 American soldiers.
Meanwhile, Maliki’s Shiite-led government claims that individuals in Sunni Arab states are arming Al-Qaeda-linked groups.
Senior Maliki advisor Bassem Ridha told AFP this week that the insurgency “is being financed by sheikhs of Saudi Arabia, the Gulf, Kuwait, Yemen.
“It is being delivered by a fanatic cult called Al-Qaeda, and Baathists are doing the navigation for them,” he said, referring to ousted dictator Saddam Hussein’s Baath party, to which many rebels belong.
But for all the diplomatic hullaballoo surrounding these allegations, US ground commanders warn that both the sectarian war and the insurgency are now self-sustaining and must be faced from within Iraq.
“If there are people working on ways to cut off foreign funding to Al-Qaeda in Iraq, that’s good, but they shouldn’t spend much time on it,” one officer told AFP this week in western Iraq.
Another commander, US Marine Brigadier General John Allen, said the Sunni insurgent movement finances itself through organised crime — racketeering, smuggling, theft, kidnap and ransom.
Meanwhile, US officers say Iraq is awash with weapons dating from before the invasion, providing insurgents with ready materiel without the need for mass cross-border smuggling.
There is a new sense among commanders in Iraq that the new strategy is their best chance yet for victory. It’s just that the window for success is tight.