General Urges New Strategy for Baghdad

By KIRK SEMPLE and JOHN O’NEIL

New Yoek Times

October 19, 2006

BAGHDAD, Oct. 19 — The American-led crackdown in Baghdad has not succeeded in quelling violence across the capital and a new approach is needed, a military spokesman said today.

Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, the senior spokesman for the American military in Iraq, said that the strategy of concentrating on a limited number of highly troubled neighborhoods had not slowed sectarian violence in the city as a whole.

Attacks in the Baghdad area went up 22 percent during the first three weeks of Ramadan in comparison with the three weeks before, an increase General Caldwell called “disheartening.”

The crackdown, which began in August, “has made a difference in the focus areas but has not met our overall expectations in sustaining a reduction in the level of violence,” General Caldwell said, adding that American commanders were consulting with the Iraqi government on a change in plans.

General Caldwell’s statement comes at a time when attacks on American forces have been increasing, in part because of the push in Baghdad, and at a time of increasing friction between the United States and the Iraqi government over how to deal with the Shiite militias that are responsible for much of the sectarian violence.

Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki flew to the holy city of Najaf on Wednesday to plead for help from Iraq’s two most influential and enigmatic Shiite clerics, a sign of the seriousness of the crisis surrounding the Iraqi government.

Another American soldier was reported killed today, bringing the death toll among United States forces for the month to at least 71, an unusually high number.

During a televised briefing in Baghdad, General Caldwell tied to the rising levels of American casualties to the approaching midterm elections home, as well to a longer-established pattern of increasing violence during Ramadan.

He said that it was “no coincidence” that the surge in deaths “coincide with our increased presence on the streets of Baghdad and the run-up to the American midterm elections.”

“The enemy knows that killing innocent people and Americans will garner headlines and create a sense of frustration,” the general said.

On Tuesday night, President Bush made a similar point when he was asked about a comparison between the situation in Iraq and the Tet offensive in Vietnam in 1968, which shook American confidence in that war’s outcome.

That “could be right,” Mr. Bush said, in an interview with George Stephanopoulos on ABC News. “There’s certainly a stepped-up level of violence, and we’re heading into an election. George, my gut tells me that they have all along been trying to inflict enough damage that we’d leave.”

In Baghdad, General Caldwell said that violence had begun to return to some of the areas that had been the focus of the crackdown, as Sunni insurgents and al Qaeda “push back.”

He said their strategy seemed to be that “if you want to discredit this government, go back and strike at those areas” that officials have announced as newly peaceful.

He said that American forces had recently returned to the Dora neighborhood in southeastern Baghdad, which had been held up as one of the prime successes of the crackdown.

“Obviously the conditions under which we started are not the same today,” General Caldwell said.

In earlier statements, General Caldwell and other American commanders had called for patience, saying that the crackdown would take time to produce results.

General Caldwell did not explain what conditions had changed or say what new approaches were under consideration.

American officials have spoken in recent weeks about the splintering of Shiite militia groups and the growth of renegade bands linked to the Mahdi Army, the milita linked to Moktada al-Sadr, the anti-American cleric. The general cited a previous American estimate that 23 militias were now operating in the Baghdad area.

Early in the crackdown, American officials said they planned to extend it into Sadr City, the violent area of eastern Baghdad dominated by the Mahdi Army. But Mr. Maliki said recently that he had vetoed a request by the United States to move into Sadr City in force.

Tensions on the subject rose on Wednesday when Mr. Maliki ordered the release of a senior aide to Mr. Sadr who had been arrested on suspicion of complicity in death squads.

General Caldwell today declined to comment on the move, saying that “any limits the Prime Minister wants to impose on us, we have to abide by.”

The general also said that Mr. Maliki is pursuing strategic issues and “dialogues” and was “working at a much higher level.”

But the general said that the aide, Sheik Mazin al-Saidy, was released on the condition that he sign a promise not to participate in illegal activities.

The release had provoked a new wave of exasperation among American officials and military commanders, who have made little secret of their growing doubts about Mr. Maliki’s political will or ability to stop the killings.

Mr. Maliki returned to Baghdad on Wednesday without any clear breakthrough from his meeting in Najaf with Mr. Sadr and Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s most revered cleric.

Ayatollah Sistani, a peacemaker in previous confrontations between the American forces and Mr. Sadr, is widely viewed in Iraq as the only Shiite leader with the potential authority to subdue the Shiite militias.

As a leader of one of the Shiite religious blocs that lead the government, Mr. Maliki is regarded as a protégé of Ayatollah Sistani, but he is also politically indebted to Mr. Sadr, whose party holds a crucial bloc of seats in Iraq’s Parliament.

Mr. Maliki removed the country’s two most senior police commanders this week, in a major restructuring of the Shiite-led police forces, which have been widely accused of abetting death squads. American officials and some Iraqi leaders have demanded further changes.

But two news conferences in Najaf, one attended by Mr. Maliki and Mr. Sadr, and one attended by Mr. Maliki alone, produced no concrete agreements that might herald a truce by the Mahdi Army.

While Mr. Maliki cited “positive results” from his talks with Ayatollah Sistani and with Mr. Sadr, he offered no details. He said only that he had met with Ayatollah Sistani “so that that the security and political situation can be stabilized, and allow the government to turn its attention to reconstruction.”

“We are in a difficult security situation,” Mr. Maliki said. “All the political and religious figures in the country are talking about safeguarding our citizens and our homeland, stopping the bloodshed, and rebuilding the country. Everybody is waiting impatiently for these things.”

In his comments, Mr. Sadr, who rarely appears in public, restricted himself mainly to the broad disavowal of sectarian killings that he has made in the past, even as evidence has mounted of the Mahdi Army’s involvement in death-squad killings in Baghdad and elsewhere.

“I speak out now to condemn sectarianism of all kinds, including kidnapping and sectarian killing,” he said. “I call for the unity of all Iraqis, and Sunnis and Shiites to join together to rebuild Iraq and rescue the country from the seas of blood that are spilled every day.”

But the cleric, a volatile figure whose power rests on his command of thousands of militiamen and a political faction that provides a critical margin of support to the Maliki government in Parliament, rejected American demands for an early breakup of the militias, which have thrown the country into chaos.

“Only the Iraqi government has the right to act in these matters,” he said. “No one else has any right to intervene, neither the Americans nor any other country.”

Iraq’s national security adviser, Mowaffak al-Rubaie, declined to comment on the negotiations that led to the sheik’s release, but said the request, made by the prime minister himself, was part of a broader strategy to deal with Mr. Sadr politically.

“We believe there is room for political engagement with Moktada, and anything which would disrupt this political engagement will not be very constructive,” Mr. Rubaie said.

A fresh demonstration of the militias’ potential for destabilizing wide parts of the country came last weekend, when Shiite militiamen went on a killing rampage in and around the town of Balad, murdering 38 Sunnis in reprisal for the beheading by Sunni extremists of 19 Shiite workers.

Residents in the area said that some of the Shiite killers belonged to the Mahdi Army and had been dispatched from their stronghold in Shuala, where Sheik Saidy had been captured Tuesday.

And General Caldwell gave a new sense of the toll the continuing violence has taken on Iraq’s young security forces. He said that roughly 25,000 soldiers and police officers had been lost to service after being killed or wounded too badly to return to duty.

As a result, a batch of 10,000 new recruits is currently in training as replacements, and further batches of similar size are scheduled to begin training in December and February.

Kirk Semple reported from Baghdad and John O’Neil from New York. Andy Lehren contributed reporting from New York, John F. Burns and Sabrina Tavernise from Baghdad, and Iraqi employees of The New York Times from Najaf and Balad.