The US strategy in Iraq is in flux. George Bush’s generals say the “surge” in US troop numbers will continue into spring next year.
But Lieutenant General Raymond Odierno, commander of US ground forces in Iraq, admitted on Thursday of last week that his officers are trying to negotiate local ceasefires with specific guerrilla groups.
Some 127 US soldiers were killed in May, the highest body count since the assault on Fallujah in 2004. Another 14 died in the first three days of June.
These higher casualties are partly the result of changed tactics that involve scattering US units in relatively small pockets – around 60 in greater Baghdad – that are more vulnerable to attack.
Initially Bush’s “surge” saw a fall in the level of sectarian violence of Baghdad. But much of it was simply displaced elsewhere.
In the northern city of Mosul, for example, Sunni Arab militias have driven an estimated 70,000 Kurds from their homes.
Now sectarian killings are rising again in the capital. In the first three weeks of May, 321 corpses of assassination victims turned up in Baghdad’s morgues. The same number was found in the whole of January, the last full month before the “surge” began on 14 February.
The Washington Post calculates that at least 1,098 people have died in 20 car and suicide bombings that each killed more than 20 people in the 14 weeks since 14 February. Some 821 people died in 11 attacks in the previous 14 weeks.
In a nutshell, the Pentagon’s plans aren’t working. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the US capital. In the face of Bush’s presidential veto, the Democrats in the US Congress caved in and removed the deadline for US withdrawal from Iraq that they had previously tied to legislation funding the war. But the political pressure from Bush’s fellow Republicans is becoming intense.
A few weeks ago 11 Republican congressmen went to see Bush in the White House to warn him that their patience and that of their constituents with the “surge” is running out. Rahm Emmanuel, a Democratic leader in the House of Representatives, highlighted the growing conflict between Bush and his party in the lead-up to the next elections in November 2008:
“Bush is hell bent on 20 January 2009, when he walks out of the door, leaving a box stamped ‘Iraq’ for the next president. The Republicans are hell bent on not going through the next election with Iraq tied to their ankles.”
General David Petraeus, the US commander in Iraq, says that it should be clear by September whether or not the “surge” is succeeding. He and his advisers are working on a massive plan to make it work. But the New York Times carried two stories recently suggesting that the political ground may be shifting under them.
According to the first, senior officials in the Bush administration are discussing halving the number of US combat troops in Iraq next year. Overall troop levels would fall from 146,000 to 100,000, because many US soldiers are involved in training and advising Iraqi client forces.
This policy would kill off the “surge”, but it would not mark US withdrawal from Iraq. This is confirmed by a story in last Sunday’s New York Times pointing out that Bush and other top officials have started talking about the “Korea model”. The US has kept troops in South Korea ever since the 1953 armistice that ended the war with North Korea and China.
The new plan “calls for maintaining three or four major bases in the country, all well outside the crowded urban areas where casualties have soared”.
This is really a variant of the strategy the US pursued in 2004-5, when it pulled its troops out of the cities and relied on the client army and sectarian death squads to maintain control. The “surge” is the latest response to the utter, bloody failure of this approach.
And now it too is failing. The Bush administration is moving in ever diminishing circles, seeking to postpone the defeat in Iraq that most of the US political elite now seems to accept as inevitable.