Just hours after the new U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates took office, his department issued a quarterly report on Iraq that paints a largely bleak picture of increased violence and continuing political deadlock. It says the Shi'ite Mahdi Army has become the biggest threat to security in the country. VOA's Al Pessin reports from the Pentagon.
The report called Measuring Stability and Security in Iraq cites a 22 percent increase in attacks, to nearly 1,000 per week. It says two thirds of the attacks are aimed at coalition forces, but that the remaining attacks, on Iraqi security forces and civilians, are much more deadly. It says most of the violence is limited to Baghdad and three other provinces - Anbar, Salah a-Din, Diyala, but that 37 per cent of the Iraqi people live in those areas.
The report blames sectarian militias for most of the violence, singling out the Mahdi Army of Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr for having what it calls "the greatest negative affect on the security situation in Iraq." It says the militia has replaced al-Qaida terrorists as the biggest cause of civilian casualties in Iraq, and has become the greatest threat to the coalition. It calls the Mahdi Army Iraq's "most dangerous accelerant of potentially self-sustaining sectarian violence."
Assistant Secretary of Defense Peter Rodman says the sectarian violence is the result of the bombing of a Shiite shrine in the Iraqi city of Samara in February.
"In Samara, the insurgents achieved what one could call a partial strategic success, namely to trigger what we've been dealing with ever since, which is the cycle of sectarian violence," said Peter Rodman.
Lieutenant General John Sattler, the director of strategic plans and policy for the U.S. military, says something must be done to break the cycle of violence.
"The violence has escalated at an unbelievably rapid pace," said General Sattler. "We have to get ahead of that violent cycle and break that continuous chain of sectarian violence. That is the premier challenge facing us right now. I would say that the extremists on both sides, those have to be taken head-on."
But General Sattler and Assistant Secretary Rodman say there has not been any joint Iraqi-American political decision to declare the Mahdi Army a hostile group, which would result in direct U.S. and Iraqi military action against it. Rodman says that is part of President Bush's Iraq policy review, which is expected to be completed in January.
The Pentagon report calls on the government of Iraq to do more to press for national reconciliation that it says would reduce the violence. It says the government has been trying, but that its efforts so far "have not been successful." Still, Rodman is hopeful.
"The government is striving to do what it was meant to do, which is be a rallying point for the moderate center, to represent the unity of all of the different communities," he said. "That's the struggle that's going on now. And I don't think anybody should pre-judge that it's going to fail."
Rodman praised recent efforts by the Iraqi Prime Minister to cajole and pressure the various groups into cooperating with the government. But the report says "Iraq's political parties are often unwilling or unable to resolve conflicts through compromise" and that some politicians support violent groups even while participating in the government.
The quarterly Pentagon report says there are now 322,000 soldiers and police officers in the new Iraqi security forces, but it says many of them are not available to serve due to death, injury, attrition, approved and unapproved leave and other problems, including a reluctance to be deployed in violent areas. According to General Sattler, fewer than 200,000 Iraqi soldiers and policemen are available at any given time. The report also criticizes corruption and sectarian loyalties, particularly in the police and the Ministry of Interior, and charges that the police sometimes facilitate militia attacks.
The report also says nearly 1.5 million Iraqis have fled the country, while nearly half a million more have had to flee their homes but stayed inside the country. Still, the report cites some progress in the Iraqi forces, noting that they have taken responsibility for more of the country in recent months.
The report does not speculate on future U.S. troop levels, but it says as security conditions allow, coalition forces will move out of Iraqi cities, will operate from a decreasing number of bases around the country and will conduct fewer high-visibility operations. It does not call for an increase in American trainers for Iraqi troops, as the independent Iraq Study Group did earlier this month. But it does say the Iraqi forces need to increase their capabilities, particularly on logistics.
The report is also highly critical of Iran and Syria, charging them with undermining the Iraqi government by supporting insurgents and militias.
The report rejects the contention by some that Iraq is in a state of civil war. But it acknowledges that conditions exist that could lead to civil war. Assistant Secretary Rodman says the political process in Iraq has always been the key to the country's future, and he says that also holds true today.
"The national government is intact," he said. "Iraq's security forces are intact. But that will remain the case only if political conditions permit it."
Rodman acknowledged that after several years in which violence did not hamper the political process, that began to happen this year, after the Samara bombing.