BAGHDAD – A year ago in Baghdad: Shiite militiamen and Sunni insurgents owned entire neighborhoods and key areas beyond. Iraq’s government was adrift, and U.S. commanders weighed the real possibility of being trapped in a full-scale civil war.
Washington’s response was “the surge,” launched Feb. 14, 2007, with the 82nd Airborne as the vanguard of an American troop buildup that would climb to 30,000 extra U.S. soldiers by the summer.
A year later – through a mix of military might, new allies and some fortunate timing – Iraq looks very different.
The crackdown in Baghdad and surrounding areas was seen as a last-ditch effort to salvage the American mission in Iraq and, in the words of President Bush, give Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki “breathing space.”
The concern now is how to build on the gains as the surge forces are pulled back, and some major challenges appear far from any clear answers: whether Iraq’s Shiite majority will further fray into rival factions and how much Iran will exert its considerable influence.
Al-Maliki’s government is still struggling to get firm footing, but has recently tried to push through some of the U.S.-demanded political reforms for reconciliation.
The U.S.-led forces have successfully tamped down violence, and the Pentagon has forged critical pacts with Sunni fighters against al-Qaida in Iraq, which is trying to regroup in northern parts of the country.
After a sharp initial spike in military and civilian casualties, the numbers make a strong case that the surge generally accomplished its main goal.
Before February 2007 was out, 1,801 Iraqis and 81 U.S. soldiers would die. By contrast, January 2008 saw figures of 609 and 39, respectively.
The bulk of the surge troops are expected to be pulled out by summer. On Monday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates endorsed taking another assessment of Iraqi security in midyear before deciding on any further cuts in U.S. troop strength.
Anbar province, which stretches to the Saudi Arabian, Jordanian and Syrian borders west of Baghdad, fell virtually silent. It had been the heart of the Sunni insurgency and a bastion for al-Qaida in Iraq.
The Americans got lucky there. Sunni tribal leaders who had been fighting the Americans began in late 2006 to turn on al-Qaida, fed up with the terrorist organization’s brutality and austere brand of Islam.
U.S. forces quickly exploited the shift and began sponsoring similar movements in Baghdad and regions to the north and south. An estimated 80,000 members of the so-called Awakening Councils or Concerned Local Citizens are now fighting with – not against – U.S. and Iraqi forces.
Many of the new allies are on the American payroll, taking home minimal salaries while the U.S. tries, with limited success, to persuade the al-Maliki government to bring them into the army, police and a civilian corps of workers to rebuild the shattered country.
Into that mix, radical anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr placed a freeze on his feared Mahdi Army militia, causing a dramatic fall in death-squad killings in the capital and in attacks on American forces.
The first half of the surge year saw enough casualties to make 2007 the deadliest for American troops, with 126 killed in May alone, along with 2,155 Iraqis. In all, at least 831 Americans have died in 12 months of the surge.
The sharply lower figures for the second half of 2007 have only returned the pace of U.S. losses to what they were in late 2003 and early 2004. The Iraqi death toll is back down to where it was at the close of 2005.
What’s more, much of the key legislation designed to spur reconciliation among Iraq’s Sunni and Shiite Arabs and the Kurds still languishes, with the Shiite al-Maliki either too politically weak or disinclined to take major steps toward a greater Sunni role.
And then there is Iran.
As the U.S. begins reversing the expansion of troop strength – back to the pre-surge levels of about 130,000 – Iran has quietly placed itself in the control room of Iraq’s future. Tehran has major military and political tools available to it until U.S. forces eventually leave and has sunk deep roots inside the country’s fertile Shiite political power structure.
While the Americans say they have seen a decline in Iranian funding and arming of rogue members al-Sadr’s Shiite militia, six key Shiite figures from across the political spectrum have told the Associated Press that Iran is pressing ahead in several directions.
Iran is gaming its future in Iraq on three fronts, the most public of which has been face-to-face meetings between U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Kazemi Qomi. Another session could be held in March.
While Crocker has insisted the talks have not veered from topics surrounding Iraqi security, the Iraqi officials, some of whom sat in on the meetings, say their scope has expanded.
The result, the officials said, was Iran’s pledge to stop backing the Mahdi Army in return for the Bush administration lowering its rhetoric about Iran’s nuclear program. The Iraqis who spoke about the talks said they believed the release of the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate in December was a quid pro quo to Tehran for it having turned its back on the Mahdi Army.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.
The NIE, in an about-face, said Iran had halted its secret attempts to build nuclear weapons in 2003, contrary to White House claims that Iran was using a civilian nuclear energy program as cover to build nuclear weapons.
Since then, Washington’s pronouncements have softened significantly.
On the second front, Iran has shunned the Mahdi Army, but has continued sending arms, fighters and money into Iraq. The leaders of these groups of fighters take orders from Iran and are known as the Ettelaat, shorthand for Iranian intelligence.
The Iraqi officials who spoke to the AP said that after al-Sadr announced a freeze on his militia in August, the Iranians sent in seven Ettelaat commanders – Iraqis loyal to Iran who had been training and handling elite Mahdi Army groups in Iran. These at the time had broken with the mainstream militia over the freeze.
The commanders were said to have slowly infiltrated with more than 1,000 men armed and trained by Iran, with orders to continue harassing the Americans with roadside bombings, mortar and rocket attacks – a one-year high of 12 on the Army’s 2nd Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division, in January alone, the military said.
The Ettelaat force in Iraq is recruiting more fighters from among disaffected Mahdi Army foot soldiers and commanders of the so-called “special groups,” not only to keep American forces off balance but also as a sleeper brigade that would open all-out warfare should the United States attack Iran, a real fear in Tehran, the Iraqi officials said.
Top U.S. commander Gen. David Petraeus said in a recent interview that he had not heard of an Iranian-sponsored group by that name, and noted that Iran’s senior leaders have pledged to their Iraqi counterparts to stop fostering violent groups in this country.
But he noted the Americans were always alert for new tactics from Tehran.
“What we’re trying to figure out is, has there been some change in behavior? It may have been,” he said.
Petraeus said the Iranians continue to use many avenues to infiltrate and are trying to “provide assistance to and gain influence in various organizations in Iraq – some political, some militia, some of these very closely related to the Quds Force and (Mahdi Army) special groups.”
Politically, Iran has now cut ties with al-Sadr, having decided his usefulness as a tactical tool against American forces has run its course. Now, the officials said, Iran has thrown its full backing behind the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council of Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, the country’s most powerful Shiite political insider.
Ironically, al-Hakim has been a cornerstone of U.S. efforts to build a moderate Shiite political structure in the country. He has been used by Washington as a counterbalance to more radical Shiite tendencies and is seen as more open to sharing some power with the country’s Sunni Muslim minority, which ran Iraq under Saddam Hussein.
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