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A Difficult Year in Iraq, With Changes Ahead

2006 was a difficult year in Iraq, with increasing violence and a shift toward more sectarian clashes and more civilian casualties. The result was a defeat for President Bush's Republican Party in congressional elections in November, the departure of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and a major review of U.S. Iraq policy. VOA Pentagon Correspondent Al Pessin looks at the past year in Iraq, and at what lies ahead.

Since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, coalition forces have been dealing with terrorist attacks from groups like al-Qaida and a mainly Sunni Muslim insurgency involving angry supporters of the former ruler, Saddam Hussein. Even so, political developments proceeded, including the writing of a constitution and a series of elections resulting in the seating of Iraq's first democratic government in April.

But during the four months it took Iraqi political leaders to agree on that government, an event happened that had an at least equally profound impact on how the year unfolded. In February, Sunni insurgents bombed and severely damaged the gold-domed Askiriya Shrine in the town of Samarra. Assistant Secretary of Defense Peter Rodman says with that attack, the Sunni extremists succeeded in what they had failed to do during the two previous years of attacks.

"I used to say that the strategic prize in Iraq was the political process," he said. "The insurgents were trying to derail the political process, and they were consistently failing to achieve this. The tragedy of Iraq is that 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."

According to a Pentagon report issued in December, that violence has resulted in a sharp increase in sectarian attacks and in Iraqi civilian casualties. That trend has continued, particularly in Baghdad, in spite of a small increase in the U.S. troop presence and growing capabilities in the Iraqi security services. And the report acknowledges that the new Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, has failed to convince factional leaders to rein in their militias and kidnapping and death squads.

In August, the commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East told Congress the conditions existed in Iraq that could plunge the country into civil war. Many analysts say they believe that has already happened.

One result of the deteriorating situation was the formation early in the year of a group of 10 senior former U.S. officials to study what the United States can do to restore order in Iraq, stabilize the government and move toward a situation in which U.S. troops can be withdrawn. In December, the Iraq Study Group issued a damning evaluation, stated by co-chair Lee Hamilton:

"The situation in Iraq is grave and deteriorating," said Mr. Hamilton.

His co-chair was former Secretary of State James Baker:

"As a matter of humanitarian concern, as a matter of national interest, and as a matter of practical necessity, it is time to find a new way forward, a new approach," said Mr. Baker.

The group recommended that the mission of U.S. troops be changed to focus on training Iraqi forces, that the Iraqi government establish milestones for national reconciliation and move toward them, and that the United States launch a regional dialogue on Iraq, including talks with Iran and Syria. The report says if all that and many other factors fall into place, it might be possible to start withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq in early 2008.

The report was controversial and provocative, and is now only one of many documents President Bush is using in his review, along with reports from the State Department, the National Security Council and the top U.S. military officers. He is also consulting with Iraqi leaders. At his year-end news conference, President Bush offered his own assessment of the past year in Iraq.

"2006 was a difficult year for our troops and the Iraqi people," said Mr. Bush.

The president said he is open to both new tactics and new strategy in Iraq, but he will not change his goals.

"We enter this new year clear-eyed about the challenges in Iraq, and equally clear about our purpose," he added. "Our goal remains a free and democratic Iraq that can govern itself, defend itself and sustain itself and an ally in this war on terror."

The president and his aides are not saying which options he favors for his new policy, but proposals have included everything from a large short-term increase in U.S. troops in Iraq, to a fairly rapid withdrawal, starting immediately. President Bush has said he believes the only way the United States can lose the war in Iraq is if it leaves before the job is done. And he says he will not let that happen.

One of the key people the president is consulting on all that is the new defense secretary, Robert Gates. At his confirmation hearing, Gates had this exchange with Senator Carl Levin, who will become chairman of the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee in January.

LEVIN: "Mr. Gates, do you believe that we are currently winning in Iraq?

GATES: "No, sir."

But Gates made clear he agrees with President Bush that allowing the insurgents and militias to prevail in Iraq would be devastating for the Iraqi people, and for the United States. Still, he said there are no new ideas on Iraq, and that the challenge is to combine existing ideas into a strategy that will work.

Former senior Pentagon official Lawrence Korb, who now does research at the Center for Defense Information, has a similar view.

"There are no good options," said Mr. Korb. "I think if we knew the good option, we would embrace it. But we have no good options. You have to basically choose the option that maximizes the chances to achieve a reasonable outcome, and also protects your overall security interest."

U.S. officials say all the bad news from Iraq this past year has obscured many positive developments. They point to an increase in the numbers and capability of the Iraqi army and police, the handover of many parts of the country to Iraqi security control, improvements in performance at Iraqi government ministries and some increase in the availability of public services. They also note that a U.S. air strike killed the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, Abu Musab Zarqawi, in June. And officials cite the trial of Saddam Hussein for crimes against humanity. He was convicted in November and sentenced to death by hanging.

But U.S. officials also acknowledge that the situation in Iraq deteriorated badly in 2006, and that something must be done to reverse the trend in 2007.