WASHINGTON—Three months after additional U.S. troops began pouring into Baghdad in the most recent effort to stanch violence in Iraq's capital, military observers are fretting that the same problems that torpedoed last summer's Baghdad security plan are cropping up again.
Violence is on the rise, Iraqi troops aren't showing up to secure neighborhoods, U.S. troops are having to revisit neighborhoods they'd already cleared, and Iraq's politicians haven't met any of their benchmarks.
With expectations high in Washington for a September assessment from new Iraq commander Army Gen. David Petraeus, military officials in Iraq already are saying they'll need more time.
One thing is already clear, however: The additional U.S. troops haven't yet had a major impact on reducing violence.
The number of bodies found on Baghdad's streets declined in March and April after the surge began on Feb. 15, but it shot back up to an even higher level in May. So far this month, 206 unidentified corpses have been found in the capital, compared with 176 in the first eight days of May.
Some question whether any plan can create an Iraqi force that would allow the U.S. to begin drawing down troop levels in Iraq any time soon.
"The U.S. commitment level is there. But we are still seeing the same thing where the Iraqis haven't shown up the way they were supposed to. It's the same problem (as last year) and that problem hasn't been fixed," said Jeffrey White, a military analyst for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. The Iraqi forces "still can't come in large scale and replace us."
Last summer, the U.S. military in Iraq, led then by Army Gen. George Casey, embarked on a plan in June to stop burgeoning sectarian violence. Casey increased the U.S. forces patrolling Baghdad's neighborhoods by 3,700, to a total of more than 15,000, and promised a canvass of the most troubled neighborhoods to root out insurgents. The Iraqi army was to lead in searching homes and securing the neighborhoods.
Military officials claimed a 40 percent drop in sectarian violence in August. But by October, violence was again out of control and the effort ended.
The current surge, which President Bush announced on Jan. 10, was to be different. U.S. forces in Baghdad were to increase by at least 17,000, bringing the total U.S. force in Baghdad to more than 30,000. The troops were to work alongside 30,000 Iraqi army and national police forces and 21,000 policemen to secure neighborhoods. U.S. forces would be stationed in neighborhoods in newly built mini-bases and patrol with their Iraqi counterparts.
That hasn't happened as rapidly as U.S. commanders had hoped. In an assessment completed at the end of May, one U.S. division found that U.S. and Iraqi forces control only 146 of 457 Baghdad neighborhoods.
Initially promising drops in violence haven't been sustained. The number of bodies found on Baghdad's streets declined steadily in the first months after the surge began on Feb. 15. Both March and April numbers showed drops from the previous months, according to statistics gathered by McClatchy Newspapers.
Attacks on coalition troops, Iraqi forces and civilians also appeared to be declining, according to statistics gathered by the Government Accountability Office, which assesses the impact of U.S. policies for Congress. The GAO numbers showed that attacks declined from an average of 164 daily in February to 157 in March and 149 in April.
But in May, the number of bodies dumped on the streets shot back up, reaching 736, 37 more than January's total and a 42 percent increase over April's 432.
The GAO expects to release its May numbers next week.
This month's statistics suggest that number could rise again. As of Friday, 206 unidentified bodies had been found on Baghdad's streets, compared with 176 during the first eight days of May.
At the same time, the number of people killed in explosions dropped in May, to 404 from 414 in April, and the number of car bombs and other explosions dropped as well, from 103 in April to 90 in May.
But that seemingly good news has a darker side. U.S. military commanders have long argued that militants resort to explosives and bombings when they can't enter neighborhoods and force residents out. A drop in bombings while sectarian killings rise would indicate that armed militias and insurgents are having better luck operating in a more targeted fashion in some neighborhoods.
The surge also hasn't met its non-military goal of giving the Iraqi government time to reach agreements on key political issues, such as how to distribute Iraq's oil revenues and whether to let former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath party work for the government.
The Iraqi government has missed every interim deadline set by U.S. officials and has made little progress toward 18 benchmarks that Congress has ordered Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker to report on in September.
Similar benchmarks were announced last year as the U.S. began that effort to pacify Baghdad.
Military officers who worked with Casey in Baghdad last year say they have a sense of deja vu as they contemplate the surge's progress so far.
"We didn't have embedded units with the Iraqis like now, but the surge has glimmers of our plan. And the political will didn't step up then," said one military commander in Washington who worked with Casey. He asked not to be identified because he's not authorized to discuss the current surge's progress. "Any plan can work if the Iraqi (leaders) step up and act like a unified country."
During his congressional confirmation testimony on Thursday, Lt. Gen. Doug Lute, whom President Bush has nominated to be a new "war czar" to oversee Iraq policy, said the Iraqis may not be capable of undertaking the kinds of changes that U.S. officials are asking of them.
"The question, in my mind, is not to what extent can we force them or lever them to a particular outcome, but rather to what degree do they actually have the capacity themselves to produce that outcome, and if produced or if pressed too hard, will we in turn end up with an outcome that isn't really worth the paper it's written on," Lute said.
In Baghdad, U.S. officials are calling for patience. They said that the Iraqi forces are better than they were during last summer's plan, that the Iraqi politicians have more experience now and will end their stalemate and that it's too early to assess the plan.
They disagree with those who say the Iraqi forces aren't stepping up, noting that Iraqi casualties are at least twice as high as U.S. troop deaths. Those numbers, however, aren't available because the Iraqi Ministry of Defense declines to release them.
Col. Steve Boylan, Petraeus' spokesman in Baghdad, attributes the rise in violence to an insurgency watching the mounting pressure in Washington for a September assessment.
"They (the insurgents) have got to do everything they can to make it appear it's not working," Boylan said.
Last October, Casey, then the top commander in Iraq, made a similar assertion as he and then-Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad held a rare joint news conference to tout the Iraqi government's supposed agreement to tackle political benchmarks.
Casey said then that the Iraqi forces were improving and that the plan was having a "dampening effect" on sectarian violence, in spite of statistics that suggested otherwise.
"We are about 75 percent of the way through a three-step process in building those forces," Casey said of the Iraqi army. "Their leaders are feeling more responsible for the security of Iraq, and they want to take the reins, and I think we need to do that."
Four days later, the U.S. announced the end of its security plan, conceding that violence had reached unprecedented levels.