A growing number of senior American military officers in Iraq have concluded that there is no long-term military solution to an insurgency that has killed thousands of Iraqis and more than 1,300 U.S. troops during the past two years.
Instead, officers say, the only way to end the guerilla war is through Iraqi politics – an arena that so far has been crippled by divisions between Shiite Muslims, whose coalition dominated the January elections, and Sunni Muslims, who are a minority in Iraq but form the base of support for the insurgency.
“I think the more accurate way to approach this right now is to concede that … this insurgency is not going to be settled, the terrorists and the terrorism in Iraq is not going to be settled, through military options or military operations,” Brig. Gen. Donald Alston, the chief U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, said last week, in a comment that echoes what other senior officers say. “It’s going to be settled in the political process.”
Gen. George W. Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, expressed similar sentiments, calling the military’s efforts “the Pillsbury Doughboy idea” – pressing the insurgency in one area only causes it to rise elsewhere.
“Like in Baghdad,” Casey said during an interview with two newspaper reporters, including one from Knight Ridder, last week. “We push in Baghdad – they’re down to about less than a car bomb a day in Baghdad over the last week – but in north-center (Iraq) … they’ve gone up,” he said. “The political process will be the decisive element.”
The recognition that a military solution is not in the offing has led U.S. and Iraqi officials to signal they are willing to negotiate with insurgent groups, or their intermediaries.
“It has evolved in the course of normal business,” said a senior U.S. diplomatic official in Baghdad, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of U.S. policy to defer to the Iraqi government on Iraqi political matters. “We have now encountered people who at least claim to have some form of a relationship with the insurgency.”
The message is markedly different from previous statements by U.S. officials who spoke of quashing the insurgency by rounding up or killing “dead enders” loyal to former dictator Saddam Hussein. As recently as two weeks ago, in a Memorial Day interview on CNN’s “Larry King Live,” Vice President Dick Cheney said he believed the insurgency was in its “last throes.”
But the violence has continued unabated, even though 44 of the 55 Iraqis portrayed in the military’s famous “deck of cards” have been killed or captured, including Saddam.
Lt. Col. Frederick P. Wellman, who works with the task force overseeing the training of Iraqi security troops, said the insurgency doesn’t seem to be running out of new recruits, a dynamic fueled by tribal members seeking revenge for relatives killed in fighting.
“We can’t kill them all,” Wellman said. “When I kill one I create three.”
Last month was one of the deadliest since President Bush declared the end of major combat operations in May 2003, a month that saw six American troops killed by hostile fire. In May 2005, 67 U.S. soldiers and Marines were killed by hostile fire, the fourth-highest tally since the war began, according to Iraq Coalition Casualty Count, an Internet site that uses official casualty reports to organize deaths by a variety of criteria.
At least 26 troops have been killed by insurgents so far in June, bringing to 1,311 the number of U.S. soldiers killed by hostile action. Another 391 service members have died as a result of accidents or illness.
The Iraqi interior minister said last week that the insurgency has killed 12,000 Iraqis during the past two years. He did not say how he arrived at the figure.
American officials had hoped that January’s national elections would blunt the insurgency by giving the population hope for their political future. But so far, the political process has not in any meaningful way included Iraq’s Sunni Muslim population.
Most of Iraq’s Sunnis Muslims, motivated either by fear or boycott, did not vote, and they hold a scant 17 seats in the 275-member parliament.
There was a post-election lull in bloodshed, a period that saw daily attack figures dip into the 30s. But with the seating of the interim government on April 28, attacks spiked back to 70 a day. More than 700 Iraqis have been killed since then.
The former Iraqi minister of electricity, Ayham al-Samarie, has said he’s consulted with U.S. diplomatic officials about his negotiations with two major insurgent groups to form a political front of sorts. There has been similar talk in the past – notably by former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi’s administration, which spoke of inclusion through amnesty – but nothing has come of it.
At the heart of the problem is the continued failure of U.S. and Iraqi officials to bring the nation’s Sunni minority, with more than five million people, to the political table. Sunnis now find themselves in a country ruled by the Shiite and Kurdish political parties once brutally oppressed by Saddam, a Sunni.
With Shiites and Kurds stocking the nation’s security forces with members of their militias, Sunnis have been marginalized and, according to some analysts in Iraq, have become more willing to join armed groups.
Since September of last year, some 85 percent of the violence in Iraq has taken place in just four of Iraq’s 18 provinces: the Sunni heartland of al Anbar, Baghdad, Ninevah and Salah al Din.
U.S. officials prefer not to talk about the situation along religious lines, but they acknowledge that one of the key obstacles to resolving Iraq’s problems is the difference between Sunni and Shiite religious institutions.
Shiites are organized around their marja’iya, a council of clerics – led in Iraq by Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani – that issues religious edicts that Shiite faithful follow as law. Sunnis, on the other hand, have no such unifying structure.
The difference was made clear in January when one list formed under the guidance of Sistani was the choice of almost all Shiites voting. Those Sunnis who did go to the polls split their votes among a myriad of organizations including those backed by a presumptive monarch, a group of communists and a religious group that may or may not have been boycotting the election.
Sunni Muslims near downtown Baghdad have only to drive down the street to see how precarious their position in Iraqi politics and society is these days. On roads near the party headquarters for the Shiite Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which is in large part shaping the policy of the nation, Kurdish militia members patrol the streets.
The troops are ostensibly part of the nation’s army, but they still wear militia uniforms and, as is the case with some in Kurdistan, many either can’t or won’t speak Arabic. One of the roads they patrol has been named Badr Street, for the armed wing of the Supreme Council. There is a large billboard with the looming face of Abdul Aziz al Hakim, the Supreme Council’s leader.
Unless Sunnis develop confidence that the government will represent them, few here see the insurgency fading.
Asked about the success in suppressing the insurgency in Baghdad recently – the result of a series of large-scale raids that in targeted primarily Sunni neighborhoods – Brig. Gen. Alston said that he expects the violence to return.
“We have taken down factories, major cells, we have made good progress in (stopping) the production of (car bombs) in Baghdad,” Alston said. “Now, do I think that there will be more (bombs) in Baghdad? Yes, I do.”