Moreover, the increasingly frequent bombings, many of which have been followed by spontaneous popular demonstrations against U.S. troops and Iraqi security forces, have sparked fears that Shia militias, which have been relatively inactive since Bush announced the surge in January, may re-emerge to exact revenge against the Sunni population.
Those fears were compounded by the withdrawal from the government of Prime Minister Maliki earlier this week of six cabinet ministers loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr, whose Mahdi militia, by far the largest paramilitary group in Iraq, is believed to have been responsible for much of the death-squad activity against Baghdad's Sunni residents before the surge.
Indeed, 25 bodies, all showing signs of torture and summary execution, were found on Baghdad's streets Wednesday, adding to mounting evidence over the past two weeks that Shia militias have begun taking revenge.
In addition, what advances have been made on the security front have not been matched by progress achieving national reconciliation, a point noted even by U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates after visiting Baghdad this week.
Constitutional amendments and other legislation designed to reassure Sunnis about their place in a post-Baathist Iraq that were supposed to have been approved last year have made virtually no headway. "I believe that faster progress can be made in the political reconciliation process," noted Gates in a speech to the Chamber of Commerce in Cairo Wednesday.
The surge strategy, which calls for the addition of some 30,000 U.S. troops to the 140,000 marines and soldiers already deployed in Iraq as of February, is based on the assumption that securing Baghdad was essential for preventing an all-out sectarian war between Sunni insurgents and Shia militias and creating the political space necessary to reconcile the two sects.
The plan called for almost all of the additional troops, as well as thousands more Iraqi soldiers and police, to patrol neighborhoods in the capital to guarantee security and even begin to reverse the "ethnic cleansing" that over the past year or so transformed many mixed districts into segregated enclaves dominated by armed groups of one sect or the other. About half of the new troops have been deployed so far.
The plan has registered some successes, according to the Bush administration and its supporters, although they concede that a final judgment cannot be rendered until the surge reaches its peak in June or July. Not only has death-squad activity in Baghdad remained below pre-surge levels, but several hundred families who had been forced to leave their homes in mixed areas have returned, according to the Pentagon.
"Right now, the signs are more hopeful than they have been in many months," according to Frederick Kagan, a military historian at the neo-conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI), this week, echoing similar statements by other champions of the surge, notably Republican Senator John McCain, as well as Bush himself.
Writing in the conservative Weekly Standard, Kagan also pointed to recent reports that Sunni tribes in al-Anbar, the other focus of the surge, have increasingly turned against al-Qaeda in Iraq, the Islamist extremist group which Washington says is responsible for most of the recent anti-Shia violence, including the recent car bombings.
But even if the surge makes further progress in Baghdad -- a possibility that depends on the prevention of a new escalation of sectarian violence in the wake of the most recent bombings -- developments outside the capital could still overwhelm it.
Even as the death toll in Baghdad has diminished over the last two months compared to late 2006, casualties among civilians and soldiers alike have risen about 10 percent over the same period, according to a recent military report.
Violence has been particularly intense in the north. Tal Afar, which had been pacified last year by a counter-insurgency effort that has been cited as a model for the surge strategy, suffered the war's single deadliest attack last month when a suicide truck bombing killed 152 people in a predominantly Shia area. The bombing set off revenge killings of some 70 Sunni civilians by Shia militia and police.
Sectarian violence and attacks on U.S. forces have also become so intense over the past two months in Diyala province, northeast of Baghdad, that U.S. commanders felt compelled in March to divert hundreds of soldiers from elsewhere in the country.
"While violence against Iraqis is down in some Baghdad neighborhoods where we have 'surged' forces, it is up dramatically in the belt ringing Baghdad," noted Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Joseph Biden last week. "Essentially, when we squeeze the water balloon in one place, it bulges somewhere else."
Southern Iraq, especially in oil-rich Basra province, has also become increasingly violent as a result of an intra-Shia conflict between Sadr's forces and its rivals, particularly the Badr Brigade of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and another armed party, Fadhila.
The violence there not only threatens to further weaken the Maliki government and the Shia coalition on which it is based, but could, if it deteriorates further, threaten key oil-export infrastructure that is essential to keeping Iraq's tattered economy afloat.
Tensions and violence are also on the rise in the other major oil-producing region of Iraq, Kirkuk, which Kurdish leaders hope to bring under their control as a result of a referendum that is bitterly opposed by the city's Arab and Turkmen residents but which, according to the constitution, is supposed to take place before the end of this year.
"If the referendum is held later this year over the objections of the other communities, the civil war is very likely to spread to Kirkuk and the Kurdish region," according to a report issued Thursday by the International Crisis Group (ICG), which accused Washington of ignoring the looming crisis there due to its pre-occupation with Baghdad.
Washington's failure so far to persuade the Kurds to postpone the referendum has also added to growing tensions with neighbouring Turkey, a NATO ally of the U.S., which has sent several high-level delegations to Washington in recent weeks to express its concern over both Kirkuk and the failure of Kurdistan's authorities to prevent cross-border raids by Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) guerrillas against Turkish targets.
Last week, Turkey's top military commander, General Yaser Buyukanit, called publicly for his forces to be permitted to take military action against the PKK in northern Iraq, a possibility that observers here see as increasingly likely and one that could embroil Iraq's one peaceful region in a major new conflict. "Of bad news in Iraq, it seems there is no end," wrote a Washington Post columnist this week with respect to the looming crisis between Turkey and the Kurds."
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Albion Monitor April
19, 2007 (http://www.albionmonitor.com)
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