WASHINGTON — The Bush administration was caught off-guard by the first Iraqi-led military offensive since the fall of Saddam Hussein, a weeklong thrust in southern Iraq whose paltry results have silenced talk at the Pentagon of further U.S. troop withdrawals any time soon.
President Bush last week declared the offensive, which ended Sunday, "a defining moment" in Iraq's history.
That may prove to be true, but in recent days senior U.S. officials have backed away from the operation, which ended with Shiite militias still in place in Basra, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki possibly weakened and a de facto cease-fire brokered by an Iranian general.
"There is no empirical evidence that the Iraqi forces can stand up" on their own, a senior U.S. military official in Washington said, reflecting the frustration of some at the Pentagon. He and other military officials requested anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak for the record.
Having Iraqi forces take a leadership role in combating militias and Islamic extremists was crucial to U.S. hopes of withdrawing more American forces in Iraq and reducing the severe strains the Iraq war has put on the Army and Marine Corps.
The failure of Iraqi forces to defeat rogue fighters in Basra has some in the military fearing they can no longer predict when it might be possible to reduce the number of troops to pre-surge levels.
"It's more complicated now," said one officer in Iraq whose role has been critical to American planning there.
Questions remain about how much Bush and his top aides knew in advance about the offensive and whether they encouraged Maliki to confront radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr.
A senior U.S. lawmaker and four military officials said Tuesday that the Americans were aware in general terms of the coming offensive, but were surprised by the timing and by the Iraqis' almost immediate need for U.S. air support and other help.
One senior U.S. military commander in Iraq said the Iraqi government originally told the United States about a longer-term plan to rid Basra of rogue elements. But Maliki changed the timing, and the nature of the Iraqi operation changed, he said.
"The planning was not done under our auspices at all," the American commander said. The plan changed because "the prime minister got impatient."
There's no evidence, however, that the U.S. tried to dissuade Maliki from executing either plan.
"My instinct is that we knew but did not anticipate" that American forces would be called on to help, said Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Biden stressed that he's still seeking information from the Bush administration on the matter.
Another senior American military official in Baghdad said Maliki notified Army Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker less than two days before launching the operation.
"By then it was a done deal," this official said.
Biden, who'll hold hearings on Iraq over the next 10 days, spoke shortly before lawmakers were to be briefed on an updated, classified National Intelligence Estimate on security, political and economic trends in Iraq.
The apparent misjudgment of the Iraqi security forces' capabilities and the strength of Sadr's Mahdi Army militia, as well as the revived political controversy over the war, come at an inopportune moment for the White House.
Petraeus and Crocker are due to testify to Congress next week about the strategy in Iraq now that the 30,000 troops Bush ordered there in a "surge" are being withdrawn.
In the larger sense, "this is a reminder that nothing has changed," said a senior State Department official, who also wasn't authorized to speak publicly.
As if to underscore that point, Britain announced Tuesday that it's freezing plans to withdraw 1,500 of its 4,000 remaining troops from southern Iraq due to the failure of the Iraqi offensive to crush Shiite militias.
Bush already has signaled that, following the Petraeus-Crocker report, he'll order a pause in further drawdowns of U.S. troops in Iraq below about 140,000, which is slightly more troops than were in Iraq before the "surge" began.
As part of its post-surge plan, the Pentagon planned to reduce troop levels by one brigade a month, thin out its presence in Iraq and lean more heavily on Iraqi forces. But the Basra offensive has some in the U.S. military fretting that Iraq's forces, while better than they were six months ago, cannot fully defend their communities.
Some say that Iraqi security forces are entangled in the intra-Shiite battle for power in southern Iraq. The Iraqi forces that Maliki sent to Basra contained a large number of one-time fighters in the Badr Organization, the armed wing of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, which vies for power with Sadr's Mahdi Army.
"We're not going to stop the tensions between the Shiite camps. Those were there all along; we've just seen them emerge," said retired Army Lt. Gen. William Odom, former director of the National Security Agency and a longtime war critic, during a conference call.
Indeed, violence began rising in places where the U.S. military drew down its forces. The first brigade left in December from the volatile Diyala province in northeast Iraq. The U.S. military moved two battalions out of Baghdad to cover parts of Diyala and Mosul, a Sunni stronghold in northern Iraq, according the military.
Violence in the capital then increased, according to statistics compiled by McClatchy.
In January, civilian casualties and improvised explosive device attacks rose. U.S. military statistics showed that suicide vest attacks increased in January and February. The second brigade is leaving Iraq now.
According to icasualties.org, which tracks U.S. troop deaths, American losses rose slightly in March to 38, compared with 29 in February. Troop deaths also shifted toward the capital this year.
Biden said that the Iraqi offensive may indeed have been "a defining moment," but not in the way Bush intended. "The president may be half-right," he said.