No matter how cleverly the US Iraq commander Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker fine-tune their conclusions in the report they are due to submit to Congress in mid-September on their surge strategy in Iraq – conditional success, partial achievements, limited progress – they are all evanescent. Words cannot pin down the harsh, fast-moving realities of Iraq, 2007.
Seven of the most dominant trends are singled out by DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources.
1. Along with improved security in some districts in and outside Baghdad, US commanders on the spot agree that they are still short of strength for cementing their control of the territory gained and completely routing al Qaeda and Sunni and Shiite insurgent forces. They also agree that the security gains and the measures they have put in place will soon melt away once American troops are gone.
2. The same manpower shortfall prevents their achieving sustainable gains in such places as Anbar to the West of Baghdad, Diyala to the East and Babil to the south.
3. With the troops currently at their disposal, US commanders cannot afford to detach fighting strength from Baghdad to shore up other active fronts without security in the capital breaking down and the Shiites, who make up two-thirds of the city’s population, seizing control. According to the commanders, if the Shiites took over, there would be no stopping them carrying out genocidal “cleansing” of the Sunni Muslims still clinging to their homes in Baghdad.
4. Baghdad’s fall to the Shiites would spell the demise of Baghdad as the seat of central federal government. The country would then fall apart into three or four entities which would claim independence and sink into fraternal warfare. The American army would become irrelevant having lost is primary missions, barring the fight against al Qaeda.
No long-life guarantee for Sunni tribal cooperation
5. US military successes in the western province of Anbar with several Sunni tribal chiefs pitching in to the American war on al Qaeda carry no long-life guarantees. The chiefs have thrown in their lot with the US for three reasons: First, to prevent al Qaeda appropriating their men and lands; second, to be at the receiving end of large amounts of weapons and cash from the Americans, the Saudis and the Arab emirates; third, to hold on to power bases for resuming their fight to drive the Americans from Iraq once al Qaeda is disposed of. The tribal leaders are quite capable of turning their guns against US forces at any moment.
6. The offensive against al Qaeda’s forces in Iraq is still unfinished. The jihadists appear to have lowered their profile, but nowhere, even in Anbar, do their followers seem to be at breaking point or near turning tail. The reverse is true: they are struggling towards a recovery from successive American blows.
On Aug. 24, the US Army in Iraqi released the following data:
The number of detainees held by the American-led military forces in Iraq has swelled by 50 percent under the troop increase ordered by President Bush; the inmate population grew from 16,000 in February 2007 to 24,500 today.
Nearly 85 percent of the detainees in custody are Sunni Arabs, the rest Shiites. About 1,800 claim allegiance to al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, which US intelligence agencies conclude is foreign-led. About 6,000 more identify themselves as takfiris, or Muslims who denigrate Shiite and other Muslims as heretics.
In other words, roughly one-third of all detainees in Iraq are al Qaeda or extremist groups fighting shoulder to shoulder with them for a shared cause.
It may be safely estimated that three times the number of jihadi detainees are still at large and active. The figures therefore add up to an army of some 20,000 combatants willing to fight with or alongside al Qaeda in different parts of Iraq.
This means that al Qaeda and its allies in Iraq command the same number of combatants in mid-2007 as did Abu Musab al Zarqawi in 2005 when the Islamic extremist legions reached peak figures.
This applies equally to the Sunni Arab insurgents battling the US army. Their numbers stay high despite heavy battle losses, the massive Sunni exodus from Iraq and Shiite ethnic warfare.
Furthermore, the US-Saud-UAE investment for turning Sunni tribal chiefs against al Qaeda has had an unfortunate side-product: the resurgence of the pro-Saddam Baathist guerilla movement, energized with fresh combat manpower, funds and the will to fight.
Iraqi forces still unready to shoulder security alone
7. Iraqi government forces’ will to shoulder responsibility for security in Baghdad and other parts of Iraq remains slack. While their fighting skills have improved in certain areas, three of their inherent characteristics are unaffected. They are still unable to carry out operations independently without an American presence and support; their religious and tribal affinities override their national loyalty; and all their ranks are highly prone to penetration by al Qaeda or Sunni insurgents.
In these respects there has been little progress from the situation in 2005-2006.
8. Where matters have gone from bad to worse is in the scale of Iran’s military and intelligence penetration of Iraq and its spreading domination of Shiite militias.
One key door was opened to Tehran by the withdrawal of British troops from the South. This week, some 500 will move out of the beleaguered Basra Palace and join the bulk of the British force, 5,000 men, at the international airport base outside the city.
The British have been criticized by Iraq leaders for not doing more to prepare Basra for reverting to Iraqi government control and therefore laying the Shiite cities of the south open to a free-for-all among armed militias and Iran’s entrance to the void.
The holy cities of Karbala and Najef have so far escaped this deterioration, but they too are eyed closely by Tehran.
Iran has built up its menace to US forces in Iraq, raising it level with that of al Qaeda, by planting its agents everywhere and handing round guns, sophisticated roadside bombs and mortars indiscriminately to anyone willing to fight the American forces.
Considering these eight factors, the Bush administration’s new security program cannot be said to have achieved its purpose. This fact the tensely-awaited Petraeus-Crocker cannot fail to reflect. Bush administration officials have therefore turned their attention to muting anticipated Democratic criticism of its strategy in Iraq when the report is presented to Congress in mid-September.
Read about these political maneuvers in Washington in the next article.