U.S. and Iraqis are wrangling over war plans
This article was reported by John F. Burns, Sabrina Tavernise and Marc Santora, and written by Burns.
BAGHDAD: Just days after President Bush unveiled a new war plan calling for more than 20,000 additional American troops in Iraq, the heart of the effort — a major push to secure the capital — faces some of its fiercest resistance from the very people it depends on for success: Iraqi government officials.
American military officials have spent days huddled in meetings with Iraqi officers in a race to turn blueprints drawn up in Washington into a plan that will work on the ground in Baghdad. With the first American and Iraqi units dedicated to the plan due to be in place within weeks, time is short for setting details of what American officers view as the decisive battle of the war.
But the signs so far have unnerved some Americans working on the plan, who have described a web of problems — ranging from a contested chain of command to issues of how to protect American troops deployed in some of Baghdad's most dangerous districts — that some fear could hobble the effort before it begins.
First among the American concerns is a Shiite-led government that has been so dogmatic in its attitude that the Americans worry that they will be frustrated in their aim of cracking down equally on Shiite and Sunni extremists, a strategy President Bush has declared central to the plan.
"We are implementing a strategy to embolden a government that is actually part of the problem," said an American military official in Baghdad involved in negotiations over the plan. "We are being played like a pawn."
The American military's misgivings came as new details emerged of the reconstruction portion of Mr. Bush's plan, which calls for more than doubling the number of American-led reconstruction teams in Iraq to 22 and quintupling the number of American civilian reconstruction specialists to 500. But how the new specialists will be recruited and how security will be provided for them — major issues now — remain unclear.
Compounding American doubts about the government's willingness to go after Shiite extremists has been a behind-the-scenes struggle over the naming of the Iraqi officer to fill the key post of operational commander for the Baghdad operation. In face of strong American skepticism, the Iraqi prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, has named an officer from the Shiite heartland of southern Iraq who was virtually unknown to the Americans, and whose hard-edged-demands for Iraqi primacy in the effort has deepened American anxieties.
The Iraqi commander, Lt. Gen. Aboud Qanbar, will be part of what the Americans have described as a partnership between the two armies, with an American general, Maj. Gen. Joseph F. Fil Jr., commander of the First Cavalry Division, working with Gen. Aboud, and American and Iraqi officers twinned down the operational chain. For the Americans, accustomed to clear operational control, the partnership concept is troublesome — full of potential, some officers fear, for dispute with the Iraqis over tough issues like an equal focus on Shiite and Sunni gunmen.
It remains unclear whether the prime minister will be in overall charge of the new crackdown, a demand the Iraqis have pressed since the plan was first discussed last month, American officials said. They said days of argument had led to a compromise under which General Qanbar would answer to a so-called crisis counsel, made up of Mr. Maliki, the ministers of defense and interior, Iraqi national security adviser, Mowaffak al-Rubaie, and the top American military commander in Iraq.
The Americans said that while they had reluctantly accepted General Qanbar, they had won concessions from the Iraqis in the appointment of two officers favored by the American command for the two deputy Iraqi commanders, one for the areas of Baghdad west of the Tigris River, the other for districts to the east.
Still, the new command structure seemed rife with potential for conflict. An American military official said that the arrangements appeared unwieldy, and at odds with military doctrine calling for a clear chain of command. "There's no military definition for 'partnered,' " he said.
Along with these problems, the Americans cite logistical issues that must be solved before the new plan can begin to work. Intent on using the large numbers of additional American and Iraqi troops that have been pledged to the plan to get "boots on the ground" across Baghdad, they are planning to establish perhaps 30 or 40 "joint security sites" spread across nine new military districts in the capital, many in police stations that have been among the most frequent targets in the war.
But in many areas, there are no police stations, at least none suitable as operational centers, so the planners are seeking alternate locations, including large houses, that will have to be fortified with 15-foot-high concrete blast walls, rolls of barbed wire and machine-gun towers. There are no solutions yet to longstanding problems like who — the American forces, or the Iraqis' own anemic logistics system — will supply the fuel required to keep Iraqi Humvees and troop-carrying trucks running, at a time when the American supply chain will face new strains in supporting thousands of additional American troops.
The plan gives a central role to the National Police, viewed as widely infiltrated by Shiite militias and, despite an intensive American retraining program, still suspected of a strongly Shiite sectarian bias. One American officer said the National Police commanders have been "dragging their feet" over their role in the new plan and that they could seriously compromise the operation.
Against these concerns, American officers cite several factors they believe will lend impetus to the new offensive. The five additional brigades of American troops committed by President Bush — approximately 21,500 American soldiers, about 80 percent of them to be deployed in Baghdad — will roughly triple the numbers of American soldiers available for ground operations, as a relatively small proportion of the new troop strength will be needed for "force protection," the military term for troops who safeguard bases and ensure the safety of other soldiers.
Since the resignation of former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld after the November elections, American commanders here have been more candid in acknowledging something Mr. Rumsfeld often disputed: that the commanders have had to play shell games with thinly stretched troops, and that many crucial operations, including previous attempts to secure Baghdad, have failed because troops have often been moved on to other operations, allowing insurgents and militia groups to retake areas vacated by the Americans. The new plan, the Americans say, will go a long way toward redressing that problem, at least in Baghdad.
Another positive cited by American officers is the naming by President Bush of Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus as the new overall American commander in Iraq, succeeding Gen. George W. Casey Jr., who will leave next month after more 30 months in command of the war. General Petraeus, who has already completed two 12-month tours in Iraq, has a reputation among officers who have served under him as an imaginative commander who enlists strong loyalties among his troops.
Many officers interviewed for this article said they still believed the tide of the war here can be reversed, with the additional troops, the focus on regaining control of Baghdad and the more consistent military strategy they said they expected from General Petraeus. The 54-year-old native of upstate New York, a marathon runner, will come to Baghdad after overseeing the Army's reworking of its counterinsurgency manual, parts of which he redrafted himself.
American officials in Baghdad and Washington have said that they have limited time — perhaps no more than six to nine months — to show gains from the new American push before popular support erodes still further and the onset of the 2008 presidential campaign leads American politicians to push harder for a troop withdrawal. There are also questions of how long the overstretched American military can sustain the stepped-up presence here.
Together, these factors have thrust American military planners into the equivalent of a two-minute drill, trying to develop a plan that will yield rapid gains in regaining control of Baghdad neighborhoods that have slipped into near-anarchy as Sunni insurgents and Shiite death squads have run rampant. While American officers are confident the additional troops will make a major impact, they worry about what will happen when the American troop commitment is scaled down again, and Iraqi troops are left facing the main burden of patrolling the city.
That prospect raises the specter of repeating what has happened on several other occasions in Baghdad: Americans clearing neighborhoods house-by-house, only for insurgents and militiamen to reappear when Iraqi security forces take over from the Americans and prove incapable of holding the ground, or compliant with the marauding gunmen. That was the pattern with Operation Together Forward, the last effort to secure Baghdad, which was launched with an additional 7,000 American troops over the summer, and effectively abandoned within two months when Iraqi troops failed to hold areas the Americans handed over to them.
Another concern is that the target of the new Baghdad plan — Sunni and Shiite extremists — may replicate the pattern American troops have seen before when they have launched major offensives — of "melting away" only to return later. Some officers report scattered indications that some Shiite militiamen may already be heading for safer havens in southern Iraq, calculating that they can wait the new offensive out before returning to the capital. "This is an enemy that will trade space for time," one officer said.
Shiite neighborhoods present special challenges. Tightly woven networks of militias backed by the government, the areas have been largely off-limits to American forces. An early test will be Sadr City, the largest Shiite enclave in the capital, and the main stronghold for the Mahdi Army militia, led by the renegade cleric, Moktada al-Sadr. American officers say it is far from clear that the Maliki government will permit American troops to operate freely in the enclave.
The number of Americans to be based at the new joint security centers is another matter under debate. At a minimum, according to officers involved in the planning, there will be an American platoon, about 30 to 40 troops, working from each new center, with another platoon patrolling nearby, serving as both a quick reaction force to quell any surge of violence in the area and also to protect the Americans stationed with the Iraqis.
That places American soldiers directly in neighborhoods where, until now, they have only appeared transiently on patrols and raids. Under the new plan, they will work closely with the Iraqi Army and police in an attempt to establish a trust that has hitherto been elusive. The approach has been modeled on a successful American campaign effort 18 months ago in Tal Afar, a northern city that saw dramatic drops in violence and is now regarded as one of the few success stories of the American campaign.
The Tal Afar strategy was developed by Col. H. R. McMaster, commander of the Third Armored Cavalry Regiment at the time. Colonel McMaster, who is widely regarded within the army as one of its most creative counterinsurgency thinker, as well as something of a maverick, has been involved in Pentagon planning for the new Baghdad operation. But unlike Tal Afar, Baghdad is at the heart of the country, with nearly a quarter of Iraq's population, and American officers say that success here will be far more complex than in the operation masterminded by Col. McMaster.
Another senior officer involved in developing the new plan said that the new crackdown would have been much easier to implement if it had been adopted earlier. He said that when he returned to Iraq for a second tour in the fall, he was shocked to see how far the American war effort had regressed, something he attributed to muddled strategy. "When I got back three months ago, the hodge-podge called Baghdad was like a Rubik's cube gone awry," he said.
In embattled West Baghdad, the plan is to place the new security centers squarely where the sectarian fighting has been fiercest. One of the first centers expected to begin operating is in Ghazaliya, a Sunni enclave that has repeatedly come under assault from Shiite militias. That seems certain to pose early on the central question that confronts American commanders as they launch the plan: Will the Maliki government agree to operations aimed at the Shiite extremists, or resist them and push for the focus to be laid on Sunni extremists attacking Shiite areas?
American officers say that only time will tell, but that they will be surprised if Mr. Maliki and his top aides change colors, despite the assurances the Iraqi leader is said to have offered President Bush. As described by American commanders, the pattern in the eight months since Mr. Maliki took office has been for the Shiite leaders who dominate the new government to press the Americans to concentrate on Sunni extremists. The argument that Shiite death squads that have accounted for an almost equal number of deaths are engaged in retaliatory attacks, and that these will cease when the Sunni groups are rooted out.