by Carlos Hamann
BAGHDAD, April 21, 2007 (AFP) – The clock is ticking. Politically, the US military “surge” in Iraq has to start showing positive results soon — and up to now the outcome is mixed.
US officials say that time is running out for Iraqi politicians to overcome their differences and pass key legislation to show they are governing for all Iraqis, not just for their narrow sectarian groups.
But voters in Iraq and in the US are also looking for military progress.
“Our commitment to Iraq … is not a commitment to have our young men and women patrolling Iraqi streets open-endedly,” US Defence Secretary Robert Gates said in Baghdad on Friday after meeting Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.
Gates described the new security plan announced in January by President George W. Bush as “a strategy for buying time for progress for justice and reconciliation” in Iraq.
But the US public, weary after four years of war, has little patience left.
Failure in Iraq could result in anything from the US Congress cutting off funds for the war to candidates from Bush’s Republican Party being crushed in the 2008 election.
Bush announced in January that he was deploying some 28,000 more US troops to Iraq, bringing the total to 160,000 by June.
The bulk of the soldiers are going to Baghdad, while 4,000 are heading to the province of Al-Anbar, a Sunni Arab insurgent stronghold to its west.
Stretched thin after four years in Iraq and more than five in Afghanistan, at first it seemed the all-volunteer US army could not handle the new demands.
Gates solved that on April 11 by ordering all soldiers in Iraq to stay for a minimum of 15 months — three more months than usual– thus giving him the manpower to maintain a “surge” level at least through the end of the year.
However, the level of violence in Iraq seems to have reached new heights, with Wednesday’s spate of car bombings in Baghdad killing almost 200 civilians.
On April 12, a bombing inside the Iraqi parliament, itself inside the fortified Green Zone, killed an MP.
In Washington, the opposition Democrats — now in control of Congress on the back of mounting anti-war sentiment — want to deny the president funding for the conflict unless he agrees to a date to start pulling out troops.
Senator Harry Reid, the Democratic majority leader in the Senate, even went as far as saying that the “war is lost, and this surge is not accomplishing anything, as is shown by the extreme violence in Iraq this week.”
Gates, who spent the week touring the Middle East in a bid to shore up support for the Iraqi government, responded simply: “I respectfully disagree.”
With so much riding on the success of the troop surge, Gates held lengthy consultations with top brass, including the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Peter Pace; the head of Central Command, Admiral William Fallon, the commander of US forces in Iraq, General David Petraeus and his deputy, Lieutenant General Raymond Odierno.
Gates even cancelled a planned visit to a joint Iraqi-US security post in Baghdad that would have provided a golden photo opportunity in order to spend more time with the generals.
Petraeus, the security plan’s main architect, has repeatedly said there will be no overnight results. “We have always been very upfront by saying this is about months, not weeks or days,” he told reporters.
Gates and Petraeus said they will evaluate the plan’s progress in late August, taking into consideration progress towards reconciliation between Iraq’s bitterly divided Shiite and Sunni communities.
News of the violence however overshadows any early signs of progress in the “surge” plan.
The US marine commander in charge of ground operations in Al-Anbar, Brigadier General Mark Gurganus, said that with his new “surge” forces he can permanently station marines with Iraqi forces in every provincial population centre.
Gurganus and his marines are based in Fallujah, captured after a major assault on insurgents in November 2004 and now a relatively peaceful town.
Other positive signs include a ceramics factory reopening in the provincial capital of Ramadi, and a cement factory reopening in Fallujah.
Attacks on his forces are “down significantly,” Gurganus said, giving no figures.
But he is quick to mention other factors, especially support from Sunni tribal leaders who are urging their men to join the police and army now that they can serve in Al-Anbar for at least two years.
The Anbar crackdown may also have pushed the insurgents elsewhere in Iraq, Gurganus said.
“We do need some time to try to make this work,” said Gates, speaking in Baghdad.
“I think it is no surprise that the results are mixed at this point. There will probably be tough days … but I’m hopeful and modestly optimistic.”
It is unclear, however, how much time the US public will give Gates and Petraeus before losing patience with the war.
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