Raising the Pressure in Iraq

By DEXTER FILKINS

New York Times

September 14, 2004

iBAGHDAD, Iraq, Sept. 13 - With four months to go before nationwide elections in Iraq, the insurgency has grown more brazen and sophisticated, prompting American commanders to begin a series of military operations to regain control over large sections of the country lost in recent months.

But as the Americans and their allies raise the pressure on the insurgents, they are rapidly finding themselves in the classic dilemma faced by governments battling guerrilla movements: ease up, and the insurgency may grow; crack down, and risk losing the support of the population. The additional quandary facing the Americans is the need to break the deadlock before January, the self-imposed deadline for elections.

On Sunday, insurgents struck the Americans and their allies in the Iraqi government in manifold ways: with suicide bombings, mortars and rockets, many of them showing a careful aim. Some of those attacks seemed intended not just to hurt the Americans but to provoke them into overreacting and alienating ordinary Iraqis.

How long the Americans can stick to their newly aggressive strategy is open to question: last April, as marines moved on Falluja, and Iraqi casualties soared into the hundreds, the Americans called off the attack and let a gang of insurgents take over.

Even now, the get-tough approach is showing signs of backfiring. On Sunday, when a suicide bomber crippled an American personnel carrier, a gun battle broke out, followed by an airstrike by two American helicopters. At least 15 Iraqis died and 50 were wounded, including a 12-year-old-girl and a television journalist. Inside the grim and chaotic wards of Baghdad's hospitals on Sunday, the Americans seemed to have made more enemies than friends.

On Monday, the scene repeated itself in another corner of Baghdad. When three insurgents opened fire on an American sport utility vehicle, American soldiers sprayed the area with gunfire, destroying three cars and killing at least one Iraqi civilian and wounding three others.

"When the Americans fire back, they don't hit the people who are attacking them, only the civilians," said Osama Ali, a 24-year-old Iraqi who witnessed the attack. "This is why Iraqis hate the Americans so much. This is why we love the mujahedeen."

An iron fist also runs the risk of alienating allies. On Monday, Turkey's foreign minister, Abdullah Gul, said his government would end all cooperation with the United States in Iraq if the military did not stop pounding Talafar, a northern city of ethnic Turkmen where 50 have died over the last two days.

The approach appears to be straining the Iraqi government as well. On Monday, the office of Ayad Allawi, the interim prime minister, said Mowaffak al-Rubaie, the national security adviser, had been relieved of his duties and replaced with a close ally of Dr. Allawi, Qassim Daoud.

The precise reasons for Dr. Rubaie's dismissal were unclear, but he and Dr. Allawi disagreed sharply over how to quell the insurgency and, in particular, how to deal with Moktada al-Sadr, the rebel Shiite cleric. While Dr. Rubaie favors coaxing Mr. Sadr into the political mainstream, Dr. Allawi is demanding Mr. Sadr's surrender first.

At the heart of the problem facing Dr. Allawi and the American military is the legitimacy of the elections called for January.

The Americans have long hoped that democratic elections could drain away the anti-American anger here, and help set the stage for an eventual withdrawal. But American diplomats acknowledge that holding elections in a town under insurgent control is probably unrealistic.

If elections were to go forward under such circumstances anyway, a large number of Iraqi voters would probably be unable to take part.

"I could see circumstances where we can't do Falluja," a Western diplomat said recently, referring to the prospect of holding elections there. "But we will not let the rejectionists in Iraq have a veto over the elections."

As American forces try to retake the cities of the so-called Sunni triangle west of Baghdad - places like Falluja and Ramadi that were strongholds of support for Saddam Hussein - some Iraqi leaders warn that they will meet stiff opposition. Separate problems have arisen in the Sadr City section of Baghdad and in southern cities where Iraq's Shiite Muslims, who make up a majority of the population, are concentrated.

"For sure, if the situation stays like this, it will be difficult to have free and honest elections," said Harith al-Dhari, the chairman of the powerful Association of Muslim Scholars, which represents hundreds of Sunni clerics around the country.

"But Iraqis do not rely so much on these elections," Mr. Dhari said. "The most important thing is for the Americans to assign a date for their withdrawal. That is the only solution."

The Americans face a similar quandary in trying to hold elections in the country's Shiite-dominated areas, where Mr. Sadr and his Mahdi Army are still refusing to give up their guns.

In April and again last month, Mr. Sadr's militia showed itself capable of seizing and holding the centers of the largest cities in southern Iraq, including Basra, Amarra and Diwaniya. Unless Mr. Sadr can be persuaded to disband his militia, British officers who had to fight Mr. Sadr in the south believe that no matter how many of his fighters they kill, he will still be able to seriously disrupt the January elections.

It is for that reason that Dr. Allawi and American military officers are refusing to entertain any such talks with Mr. Sadr until he disarms first. Mr. Sadr's aides, wary and badly bloodied, are balking.

In the meantime, American forces have been assaulting the Mahdi Army in its Sadr City stronghold. On many nights in Baghdad, the sounds of shooting and explosions - some of them from American airstrikes - can be heard from miles away.

Seated in his Baghdad office, Mr. Dhari, the Sunni cleric, said that efforts to persuade Iraqis with the gun would ultimately fail, as they did for the British after the World War I.

"When you push the Iraqi people, and you harm the Iraqi people, you will just cause them to fight back harder," Mr. Dhari said. "The idea that force will be enough to calm the Iraqis is a false dream."