U.S. Planners See Shiite Militias as Rising Threat
Gen. David H. Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker have concluded that Shiite extremists pose a rising threat to the U.S. effort in Iraq, as the relative influence of Sunni insurgent groups such as al-Qaeda in Iraq has diminished drastically because of ongoing U.S. operations.
This judgment forms part of the changes that Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, approved last week to their classified campaign strategy for the country, which covers the period through summer 2009. The updated plan anticipates shifting the U.S. military effort to focus more on countering Shiite militias -- some backed by Iran -- that have generated new violence as they battle for power in the south and elsewhere in Iraq, said senior military and diplomatic officials familiar with the plan.
"As the Sunni insurgents quit fighting us, the problems we have with criminality and other militia, many of them Shia, become relatively more important," said a U.S. Embassy official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity because the plan is not finalized.
The plan also acknowledges that the U.S. military -- with limited time and troops -- cannot guarantee a wholesale defeat of its enemies in Iraq, and instead is seeking "political accommodation" to persuade them to end the use of violence, the officials said.
In the political arena, the campaign plan no longer upholds the passage of specific laws by Iraq's parliament as the main measure of reconciliation among religious and ethnic factions. It instead emphasizes the need for government leaders to take concrete, practical steps in areas such as sharing oil revenues or hiring ex-Baathist officials. "We want to have more focus on these results . . . not on the technical legislation," said the embassy official.
Crocker and Petraeus are in broad agreement over the campaign plan changes, summarized in a 20-slide presentation that they approved in a meeting last Wednesday. However, officials identified frictions over elements of the plan -- in particular, the pace and scope of future troop withdrawals -- between Petraeus, whose priority is stabilizing Iraq, and senior leaders at the Pentagon, Joint Chiefs of Staff and regional commands concerned about the risks of conflicts elsewhere.
Top military, Pentagon and State Department officials will review the changes, which will then be incorporated into the full campaign plan, a document of more than 200 pages. Petraeus and Crocker are expected to sign the new plan by mid-November.
The revised plan lays out specifics of the withdrawal of five U.S. combat brigades from Iraq by July 2008 as announced by President Bush last month, but it stresses that any drawdowns hinge on continued security gains -- not a timeline.
"Redeployments of U.S. brigades -- even of the surge forces -- are dependent on the security situation on the ground in Iraq. If General Petraeus early next year sees the security situation deteriorating, he will have the courage to go back to the president and say he needs to keep forces that he had planned to send home," said Col. John R. Martin, senior adviser to Petraeus.
In contrast, "Centcom, the Joint Staff and OSD [Office of the Secretary of Defense] would be happier with more forces coming out, and if they could order us to redeploy forces more quickly they would do it," said a senior official familiar with the plan. "But the president is on the CG's [commanding general's] side."
Senior Pentagon and military officials say the tensions emerge from commanders' different responsibilities. "The concern in Baghdad is a lot more restricted, as their mission only includes Iraq," said a senior military official. "At the end of the day, Iraq is Iraq. It's very important, but there are other problems in the world," such as Iran, Afghanistan, Lebanon and the Horn of Africa, the official said.
The plan calls for accelerated talks with the Iraqi government to secure a renewal of the U.N. Security Council resolution that allows the U.S. military to operate in Iraq through 2008. That process could be complicated if, as U.S. officials expect, Iraqi leaders pursue changes to the status of private security contractors operating in Iraq.
Then, by the end of next year, the plan calls for the negotiation of an accord on a long-term strategic relationship between the two countries. Such an agreement would spell out the remaining U.S. forces' authority to operate in Iraq; senior Pentagon and military officials expect them eventually to number fewer than 50,000. It would be likely to provide for U.S. aviation and other military assets to protect Iraq's borders, as well as financial and other governmental assistance for several years, officials said.
The plan also outlines how U.S. commanders should carry out the transition as Iraqi forces assume greater responsibility for the country's security while the gradual withdrawal of combat brigades shrinks the U.S. presence.
Commanders are instructed to maintain their ability to train and mentor Iraqi security forces and to contribute air support, intelligence and other key capabilities. In addition, they must closely oversee events in regions where Iraqis are operating, either by assigning U.S. military transition teams to Iraqi units or by partnering U.S. units with Iraqi forces -- although the latter option will diminish as U.S. forces pull out. "As partnering goes away, I expect transition teams to grow," a senior military official said.
The campaign plan's recognition that Shiite extremists pose a relatively greater threat comes as rival Shiite militias have increased their attacks throughout southern Iraq in recent months, including the assassination of two provincial governors. A quarterly Pentagon report on Iraq released last month concluded that the instability in some southern provinces reflected the growing strength of the Mahdi Army, the militia of radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
Even so, officials said, the targeting of Shiite militias is far more sensitive for the Shiite-led Iraqi government than is the U.S. effort against the Sunni group al-Qaeda in Iraq. "When hitting on these militias, you are getting close to home for these Shia politicians . . . so it's a lot more delicate," said one military official.
In one area of debate over the plan, some U.S. diplomats disagree with military officials who think the United States should exert more influence to weed out Iraqi government and security force officials who follow sectarian agendas in how they distribute resources and whom they target.
Petraeus has a notebook in which he keeps the names of sectarian officers and officials, but he recently noted that a few of the worst offenders are now advancing reconciliation, said the senior military official.
While U.S. leaders in Baghdad revise their campaign plan, a parallel effort is underway, directed by the Pentagon and Central Command, "to execute the drawdown and mission change in Iraq," said another senior military official. This involves weighing how best to pull U.S. combat units from regions, redistribute their assigned areas of operation and decide which combination of U.S. troops, Iraqi forces and local volunteers can maintain security.
"The key thing is, as you pull a brigade out, their turf has to be reapportioned to other people. How is that done -- with more of our troops or Iraqi troops? We will have to make continual assessments of how the Iraqi army is doing and how to integrate the concerned local citizens," that official said.
Some military analysts doubt that Iraqi security forces are impartial enough to enforce the local cease-fires being negotiated around the country, and think that large numbers of U.S. troops will be needed to police such accords for at least another year. "If we are leaving and expecting the Iraqi security forces to enforce these cease-fires, we are in deep, deep trouble," said Stephen Biddle, a military expert at the Council on Foreign Relations who has advised Petraeus.
Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates and other senior officials have said that they hope to continue the drawdown of U.S. forces from Iraq beyond July at a similar pace, possibly after a pause to assess the impact.
Advisers to Petraeus say that may be possible, if security continues to improve, but stressed that no decision will be made until March. "We should be able to maintain a reasonable rate of redeployment, perhaps at about the same rate as the surge brigades are redeployed," Martin said.