BAGHDAD, (Reuters) – U.S. forces attacked insurgent bases in Iraq on Sunday as a leaked memo from the man who sent them there revealed that Donald Rumsfeld believes their strategy is not working and it may be better to reduce troop numbers.
A day before election defeat cost Rumsfeld his job, the outgoing defence secretary told the White House: “It is time for a major adjustment. Clearly, what U.S. forces are currently doing in Iraq is not working well enough or fast enough.”
The Pentagon confirmed the contents of the note, published by the New York Times, in which Rumsfeld, a leading planner of the Iraq war, outlined several options but endorsed none. It was sent on Nov. 6, a day before voter dismay over Iraq handed control of Congress to President George W. Bush’s Democratic opponents.
Among options mentioned by Rumsfeld were reductions in U.S. forces and bases and a recasting of the U.S. goals there. He suggested cutting U.S. bases to just five from 55 by mid-2007.
The presence of 140,000 U.S. troops and the loss of more than 2,800 American lives in the past 3-1/2 years has failed to end bloodshed in Iraq.
Sectarian violence between Saddam Hussein’s once-dominant Sunni minority and the newly-empowered Shi’ite Muslim majority claimed a record 3,700 lives in October, the United Nations estimated, and the latest Iraqi data suggested civilian deaths rose by more than another 40 percent last month.
Fifty-one people were killed at a busy Baghdad market on Saturday by a triple car bomb attack, 10 days after the worst attack of the conflict killed over 200 people in the capital.
The Rumsfeld memo adds to a debate expected to gather steam when the bipartisan Iraq Study Group gives its recommendations on Wednesday. The group, co-chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker, a long-time Bush family adviser, is widely expected to inform a possible shift in U.S. strategy.
In Iraq, U.S. troops and the Iraqi forces the Americans are counting on to take on the burden of stifling civil war, were on the offensive in Baquba, a volatile city 60 km (40 miles) northeast of Baghdad, the military said in a statement.
Baquba has seen Sunni insurgents, including al Qaeda Islamist militants, driving out Shi’ite Muslims, while Shi’ite militias have attacked Sunnis in surrounding areas. Three rebels were killed and 44 detained in the offensive, the military said.
In Anbar province, another centre of the Sunni insurgency, a U.S. air strike and ground raid killed six insurgents, as well as two women and a child, the military said. Police in the area, where a U.S. F-16 jet came down last week, said 20 were killed.
The pilot’s body was filmed by a local journalist just after the crash but the military has been unable to recover it.
Rumsfeld said options in Iraq included pulling U.S. troops back from vulnerable positions and using them as a reaction force to assist Iraqis when needed. He said modest withdrawals of U.S. forces could encourage Iraq’s government to take charge.
U.S. commanders, however, have voiced concern about the effectiveness of Iraqi forces and also the extent to which they are as divided as the rest of the country along sectarian lines.
Bush, who met Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki last week, indicated on Saturday he will look closely at — but not necessarily heed — the Iraq Study Group’s findings and insisted he was not looking for a “graceful exit”.
But the proposals — said to include a U.S. shift away from a combat role over the next year or so, and a regional conference that could lead to talks with Iran and Syria — will carry significant weight even if Bush chooses to ignore them.
The president, whose remaining two years in office will be marked by efforts to ensure a fellow Republican succeeds him, is devoting considerable attention to Iraq.
On Monday he will meet Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, who leads the most powerful Shi’ite party, SCIRI. He and his followers deny backing sectarian death squads which kill hundreds every week.