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Changes might have little effect

By Susan Taylor Martin
Published January 11, 2007


Ninety years after an English diplomat named Gertrude Bell created modern Iraq from disparate ethnic and religious groups, U.S. forces are struggling to hold together a country that is losing whatever fragile unity it might once have had.

That is the core problem facing President Bush as he makes a last-ditch effort to stem the mayhem that has claimed thousands of American and Iraqi lives.

"There's just not a sense of common identity, common goals," said Sandra Mackey, an expert on Iraq's many factions. "It's family against family, tribe against tribe, sect against sect."

On Wednesday, Bush announced plans to send more than 20,000 troops into Iraq, joining the 132,000 already there. But the president said the commitment is not open-ended, and that the Iraqi government will have to meet certain security, economic and political benchmarks.

"Only the Iraqis can end the sectarian violence and secure their people," Bush told a prime-time audience. "Now is the time to act."

In ousting Saddam Hussein and his fellow Sunni Muslims from power in 2003, the U.S.-led coalition opened the door to a Shiite takeover that has spawned horrific violence between the two sects. With the new Shiite-led government unable, or unwilling, to stop the killings, Iraqis are turning to sectarian militias for protection as the country splinters along religious and tribal lines.

Many experts doubt Bush's latest plan to stabilize Iraq will have much effect.

"Looking at the various things that have been tried over the last three years, it's impossible to imagine that just sending in 20,000 troops will contain the situation in a country that has so many problems," said Sir Timothy Garden, former director of defense studies for Britain's Royal Air Force.

"You put in 20,000 troops and they're either getting tired because they have been out there so many times before, or they're inexperienced. Either way, it's not going to be terribly helpful. It's more a political action than a military action."

The administration has periodically increased troop strength in certain areas, most recently last summer in Baghdad, but to little avail. Even Bush concedes there should have been more troops at the beginning of the war, to stop the looting and revenge killings that eventually spiraled into near-anarchy.

A sizable majority of Americans disapprove of the president's handling of the war, as reflected in poll numbers and the Democrats' victory in the November congressional elections. However, most Americans still oppose an immediate troop withdrawal, which Bush seems to have taken as a sign they might support what he called "a new strategy."

The United States will enter this next phase of the war minus two of its most experienced military leaders - Gen. John Abizaid, the Arab-American head of Central Command, and Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq. Both are thought to have qualms about a troop "surge," fearing it would put more U.S. lives at risk while keeping Iraqis from taking responsibility for their own future.

Abizaid is retiring, to be replaced by Navy Adm. William Fallon.

Meanwhile, Casey is moving to another job and will be succeeded by Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, who drew praise for keeping order in the northern city of Mosul during his first tour in Iraq two years ago. More recently, he has been in Kansas writing the Army's new manual for fighting insurgencies.

"He's no doubt a very bright guy but you need to remember two things," said Lawrence Korb, assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration.

"He was in charge of training Iraqi soldiers and they don't seem to be doing too well. And the counterinsurgency manual is great, it's just too late. It's not a counterinsurgency any more, it's a civil war."

Mackey, who wrote an acclaimed book about Iraq's fragility as a nation, faults Bush's new plan for not engaging other countries in efforts to curb the violence.

The bipartisan Iraq Study Group urged the White House to open talks with Iran, which has considerable influence with Iraqi Shiites, and with Syria, which has allowed foreign fighters to cross its border into Iraq. But the administration has rejected that suggestion.

"What you've got here is the dilemma of either washing your hands of the whole thing or actually occupying the country, and you can't occupy it with just 20,000 more troops," Mackey said. "You've got to have a regional response."

Another expert, Georgetown University's Daniel Byman, said it's time for the United States to consider reducing the number of troops and think about "ways to manage the instability and chaos" that could easily spill into neighboring countries.

"My personal view is that the situation has gotten so bad that any hope for real success is very dim," said Byman, a former CIA analyst and an authority on Middle East security.

"But if you do not share that assessment and believe as Gen. Petraeus does that you can still kind of pull this out, then it's going to be a very long-term effort and you need to be prepared for it. The most important thing is to make sure it doesn't get worse."

Susan Martin can be contacted at susan@sptimes.



[Last modified January 11, 2007, 00:26:38]

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