WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is determined to continue withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq on schedule, despite a surge of violence in two Iraqi cities that shows no signs of abating and could increase in the weeks ahead, administration and military officials said this week.
"We are not even talking about" changing the withdrawal plan, an administration official told McClatchy. "The situation would have to get a lot worse for that to change."
The recent upsurge in violence hasn't triggered a return to wholesale sectarian warfare, said the officials, although they conceded that they don't know whether the U.S.-backed government of Shiite Muslim Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki and the U.S.-trained Iraqi security forces could prevent large-scale chaos.
In any event, said the officials, who requested anonymity because the administration's public position is more optimistic, there's little more that the United States can do to help the Iraqis end their political, ethnic and sectarian feuds; resolve their disputes over oil revenues, political power and other issues; and build a stable, prosperous and unified nation.
During his press conference Wednesday night, President Barack Obama said the political system "is holding and functioning in Iraq," and that the U.S. withdrawal is intended to give the Iraqis enough time to sort out the major divisive issues.
Even military commanders who're concerned that the American military is leaving Iraq too soon said they aren't airing their doubts because the administration has made its decision clear.
"Politically, this is done," a senior defense official said. "We've gotten our marching orders from the Obama administration. We are trying to make this work. That is where we are."
Senior Army officials have begun holding a series of meetings about how to execute the withdrawal outlined by the Obama administration, Army officials said. The Pentagon's Joint Staff has said it hasn't received any requests from Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, to change course or speed.
Under a status of forces agreement between Iraq and the United States, the remaining 135,000 U.S. forces must be out of Iraqi cities by June 30, and nearly all American combat troops must leave the country by the end of 2011.
The Obama administration's standards for success in Iraq are far more lenient that the objectives the Bush administration spelled out in the early years of the war. In 2004, then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said, "Iraq and Afghanistan are vanguards of this effort to spread democracy and tolerance and freedom throughout the greater Middle East."
Instead of a flourishing democracy at peace with Israel, after six years, 4,281 American and perhaps 100,000 Iraqi dead and an estimated $2 trillion, the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq appears likely to leave a fractious Iraqi government, renewed internal tensions, uncertain security forces and a local chapter of al Qaida that, while weakened, can still launch major terrorist attacks on Iraqis.
Nevertheless, the Maliki government has said it doesn't want U.S. troops to extend their stay, and among Iraqis, overwhelming support for a U.S. departure is mixed with fear that the United States may never leave completely.
Defense and administration officials said the decision to withdraw from Iraq isn't just about sending more U.S. troops to Afghanistan, although top military commanders have said that can't happen unless the U.S. draws down its forces in Iraq.
Instead, they said that there are no signs that the Shiites, who were persecuted under Saddam Hussein's Sunni dictatorship, are planning to step up their retaliation against the Sunnis after American troops depart.
Instead, they said, the fact that Iraqis are growing frustrated with their government and its security forces — not with the rival sect — is a sign that Iraq is moving toward settling its problems politically.
The real sectarian warfare is over, the officials said, and what remains is al Qaida in Iraq and other extremist Sunni groups trying to renew sectarian tensions. While al Qaida in Iraq can still launch "periodic, sensational attacks," as Army Gen. David Petraeus, the head of the U.S. Central Command, described it earlier this week, it can't alter Iraq's course, the officials said.
Statistics kept by McClatchy, however, show that in Baghdad alone, more than 200 people have been killed in attacks so far this month, compared with 99 last month and 46 in February. Last week, at least 60 people were killed by an attack on the Shiite shrine of Imam Musa al Kadhim in Baghdad, which many believe was intended to instigate sectarian violence.
The U.S. military reported Friday that two Marines and a sailor were killed during combat operations in Sunni-dominated Anbar province, bringing April's total to 18 American dead, the largest monthly death toll since last September.
On Thursday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates told the Senate Appropriations Committee that al Qaida started a campaign six weeks ago in an effort to inflame sectarian tensions by targeting Shiite communities. U.S. officials said that al Qaida was responsible for the attack on the shrine.
Critics, however, said that Iraqis would hold the U.S. responsible for what happens in Iraq, even after most American combat forces leave.
Andrew Exum, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security, said it's unclear how well the war in Iraq has served U.S. interests, but that "the far tougher question is whether this is worth it to the Iraqi people."
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