BAQOUBA, Iraq, (AP) – U.S. commanders say they’ve learned from past mistakes and are trying to lay the foundation for stability as they clear insurgents from this battleground city. But it’s a slow process at a time when Congress and the U.S. public are demanding speedy results.
Two top Republicans senators have proposed legislation to require President Bush to submit a plan by Oct. 16 to restrict the mission of U.S. troops. The Senate votes this week on a measure that would order combat troops to be out of Iraq by next spring.
But progress in Iraq is difficult to measure and often ephemeral. At best the pace is slow. The question facing American commanders here is whether the U.S. public and political leadership are willing to allow time for a high-risk strategy to succeed.
“From our viewpoint, we have to show the patience to stay with this,” Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, the No. 2 U.S. commander in Iraq, told The Associated Press. “All people want to see is progress. It is incumbent on us to make this work.”
Nowhere in Iraq are the challenges more apparent than in Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad in Diyala province, with large Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish populations.
Once a thriving agribusiness center of 300,000, Baqouba is now a ghost town of shuttered shops and deserted streets. Many of its people have fled to Baghdad and surrounding communities, seeking refuge in areas where their religious sect dominates.
Two years ago, U.S. forces thought they’d turned the corner in Diyala. Roadside bombings were down. American commanders were so confident that they turned over substantial control of surrounding Diyala to the Iraqi army in August 2005.
Within a year, the insurgents were back. The al-Qaeda-backed Islamic State of Iraq declared Baqouba as its capital.
Last month, U.S. forces launched a new offensive, regaining control of the western part of the city. Fighting is still under way.
Al-Qaida’s success in penetrating Baqouba was probably due in large part to last year’s wave of sectarian violence. Shiite militias threatened Sunnis, who turned to al-Qaida and other armed Sunni groups for help.
As a first step in reclaiming Baqouba, the Americans forced the Iraqis to replace the commander of the Iraqi army’s 5th Division, for allegedly shielding Shiite death squads — a charge the general has denied.
American officials acknowledge that the decision to give too much control of Diyala to the Iraqis too fast was a mistake. The challenge is to prevent the same thing from happening again.
“To make this thing work it takes competent Iraqi security forces and competent Iraqi government,” said Col. Steve Townsend, commander of the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division which is fighting in Baqouba. “The drawdown here was premature and the (Iraqi) forces we handed over to were not ready for that responsibility.”
To prevent a repeat, the Americans are scrambling to shore up the local Iraqi leadership, helping them restore services to win the trust of the local population.
U.S. soldiers work side-by-side with the Iraqis at a joint operations center, which coordinates security in parts of the city under government control.
But the mentoring process requires “practice and patience for multiple reasons,” said Sgt. 1st Class Timothy Giardino of New York, who works in the joint operations center.
Meanwhile, Iraqi crews are working to restore electricity and water supplies. A team from the Interior Ministry has been sent from Baghdad to recruit locals into a city police force.
“People want to see Iraqi police from the area patrolling the streets,” said Capt. Marc Austin of Buffalo, N.Y., a company commander in the 1st Cavalry Division who works with Iraqi forces. “It helps build confidence.”
But Townsend said the absence of enough trained police forces remains a critical problem.
“There are not nearly enough of them,” he said. “There are four times as many on the rolls than are on the streets.”
The performance of the Iraqi army is better, officers say. Americans train Iraqi army units and conduct joint security missions, hoping they will learn by example.
“Since we’ve been doing clearing operations, they talk to the community, gather atmospherics,” said Capt. Sheldon Morris of Jacksonville, Fla., who commands another 1st Cavalry company.
The U.S. can afford to move methodically because it has extra forces sent here as part of the troop surge, commanders say. In the past, troops would clear and area, shift somewhere else and the insurgents would return.
“We have today more coalition forces,” Odierno said. “Because we have more, we can do things slower” until “we decide to turn it over to Iraqi control.”
But time may be running out.
Republican Sens. John Warner of Virginia and Richard Lugar of Indiana want to give the president until mid-October to submit a plan to restrict the use of U.S. troops in Iraq to fighting terrorists and securing borders and U.S. interests.
But the lesson of Baqouba shows that “targeting terrorists” without regard for sectarian violence may not be realistic in Iraq. Sectarian violence enabled al-Qaeda to gain a foothold among the city’s Sunni community.
“Its very hard to find something for troops that are half of today’s levels to do that is simultaneously safe and useful,” said military analyst Stephen Biddle in an interview on the Web site of the Council on Foreign Relations.
“So you end up with this kind of worst-of-both-worlds situation where you have too few troops to do anything useful but too many to cover casualties all the way to zero,” he added.