Monday, October 23, 2006

The reality of drill holes: How the course is changing

Facts have overwhelmed the White House, though they try to spin that truism away. Apparently "stay the course" never was the strategy, though there are many video clips and transcripts that show otherwise.

A major course correction is in the cards. It seems that the American military will try to make the Baghdad plan work, with some modifications. Militias have to be disarmed. The government has to govern. The stakes are very high and the challenges are staggering.

The present plan

Michael Gordon on the Baghdad security operation:
The plan will be tweaked, adjusted and modified in the weeks ahead, as American commanders try to reverse the dismaying increase in murders, drive-by shootings and bombings.

But military commanders here see no plausible alternative to their bedrock strategy to clear violence-ridden neighborhoods of militias, insurgents and arms caches, hold them with Iraqi and American security forces, and then try to win over the population with reconstruction projects, underwritten mainly by the Iraqi government. There is no fall-back plan that the generals are holding in their hip pocket. This is it.
The Times of London:
AMERICAN forces are negotiating an amnesty with Sunni insurgents in Iraq to try to defuse the nascent civil war and pave the way for disarmament of Shia militias, The Times has learnt.

The tactic marks a dramatic reversal of policy by the US military, which blocked attempts to pardon insurgents with American blood on their hands after handing over sovereignty to a secular Iraqi Government in June 2004.

The U-turn comes amid the bloodiest fighting for two years and growing domestic opposition to the war as Americans prepare to vote in crucial midterm elections.
The Times of London:
SENIOR Republicans increased pressure on the White House to change its Iraq strategy yesterday by demanding that the Government of Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi Prime Minister, should assume responsibility for securing the country.

Washington is to set Baghdad deadlines for disarming militias and taking control of its own security. The change in tactics comes amid one of the bloodiest months for US troops in Iraq for two years, with 81 killed, and an admission by the American military that a two-month offensive to stabilise Baghdad is failing.

Handing the Iraqi Government “benchmarks”, as Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary described them, shows just how far the political debate in Washington has shifted. Americans have lost faith in the war, and President Bush’s mantra to “stay the course” is being rejected by Democrat and Republican voters.
The AP:
WASHINGTON (AP) -- The fledgling Iraqi government must "step up and take more responsibility" for the country's security, a high-ranking White House official said Monday.

At the same time, Dan Bartlett denied in a television interview that the Bush administration's war policy has been a sweeping "stay the course" commitment, saying "what we aren't doing is sitting there with our heads in the sand."

In contrast to earlier White House statements, Bartlett did not deny a New York Times report saying the head of the U.S.-led Multinational Forces in Iraq and the U.S. ambassador were working on a plan that for the first time would set a specific timetable for disarming militias and meeting other political and economic goals.

"I was a bit puzzled about the report over the weekend because it was stating something that we've been talking publicly about for months," the senior White House counselor said on CBS's "The Early Show." Bartlett said the goal is to "define demonstrable milestones and benchmarks" and said it has been "very much a part of our strategy all along."
This is true, but now those benchmarks will be tied to a timetable. Iraq needs clear metrics. What are we willing to do and how long are we willing to try?

The troubles


The Christian Science Monitor:
Fighting in the past week indicates that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's efforts to disarm militias could be leading Iraq toward an intersectarian war between the Shiites in the government and the Shiites in the street.

Last week's battles in Amarah, capital of the southern Maysan Province, are emblematic of a widening Iraqi conflict to one where factions from the same sect vie for power.

Trouble there began with the assassination of Qassim al-Tamimi, a senior police officer in the city. He was part of the Badr Brigade, a militia loyal to the Supreme Council for the Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) whose members have taken a larger role recently in the police forces there. Local SCIRI officials blamed the Mahdi Army and arrested five Sadrists.

That touched off a massive show of strength by the Sadr supporters, who overran police stations. Fighting followed leaving at least 30 dead. Though the city is now under government control, residents say it remains tense.
The Guardian:
Residents described how fighters stormed three police stations in this city of 900,000 and blew them up. Around 800 black-clad militiamen with Kalashnikov rifles and rocket-propelled grenades patrolled the streets in commandeered police vehicles as others set up road blocks on routes into the town.

At least 30 policemen and 20 civilians were killed and more than 59 injured in what has become one of the most serious challenges to the authority of the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki.

One Amara resident, Hossam Hussein, said he saw hundreds of gunmen, dressed in the Mahdi army's trademark black uniforms, swarming the city's main streets. "For the last few days, you could smell the trouble building here," he said by phone. "Amara is a battleground between the gangs the militia and the politicians. And sometimes you don't know who is who."

Patrick McDonnell of the Los Angeles Times:
"Drill holes," says Col. Khaled Rasheed, an Iraqi commander who is showing me the set of photographs.

He preserves the snapshots in a drawer, the image of the young man brimming with expectations always on top. There is no name, no identification, just a series of photos that documents the transformation of some mother's son into a slab of meat on a bloody table in a morgue.

"Please, please, I must show these photographs to President Bush," Rasheed pleads in desperation, as we sit in a bombed-out palace along the Tigris, once the elegant domain of Saddam Hussein's wife, now the command center for an Iraqi army battalion. "President Bush must know what is happening in Baghdad!"

The Washington Post's Ellen Knickmeyer:
What brought this Tigris River city north of Baghdad to this state of siege was a series of events that have displayed in miniature the factors drawing the entire country into a sectarian bloodbath: Retaliatory violence between Sunnis and Shiites has soared to its highest level of the war, increasingly forcing moderates on both sides to look to armed extremists for protection.

The Shiite-led government's security forces, trained by the United States, proved immediately incapable of dealing with the sectarian violence in Balad, or, in many cases, abetted it, residents and police said.

More than 20,000 U.S. troops are based within 15 miles of Balad, but, uncertain how to respond, they hesitated, waiting for Iraqi government forces to step up, according to residents, police and U.S. military officials.

And all that was left holding Balad, and Iraq, together -- the desire for peace and normality still held by the great majority of Iraqis, and the generations of intermarriage and neighborliness between ordinary Shiite and Sunni Muslims -- was ripping apart.

"The people of Balad should not kill the Sunnis who are among them," said one slightly built Shiite man, fleeing his home on the outskirts of Balad. He and 13 women and children of his family were crammed into a single, battered Toyota sedan, stranded by a flat tire near the highway turnoff to the city. "Our relations are not of months or years. It's since the beginning of time," he said. "This relationship has been destroyed in a second."

The principals involved give a straightforward timeline of how that happened.

The trigger event, U.S. and Iraqi officials said, was the killing of two or three Sunni men from the area earlier this month. One of the men had been a local leader of the insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq, according to Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell, a U.S. military spokesman.

On Oct. 13, Sunni insurgents took their revenge. In Duluiyah, a Sunni hamlet four miles and across the river from Balad, insurgents kidnapped and beheaded 17 Shiite laborers who had come to work in the date palm groves there. The U.S. military later arrested two Sunni police officers from the town for alleged involvement in the deaths.

Al-Qaeda in Iraq fighters instigated the killings, then stood by as innocent Sunnis were killed in the retaliation that followed, said police Maj. Hussein Alwan in Duluiyah.

Hours after the beheadings, outraged and frightened Shiite elders of Balad telephoned an office of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in Kadhimiyah, a Shiite neighborhood of Baghdad. Sadr leads the Mahdi Army, the most feared Shiite militia in Iraq.


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