Armed militiamen affiliated with radical Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr pose the gravest danger to the security and stability of Iraq, surpassing Sunni Arab insurgents and Al Qaeda terrorists, a new Defense Department report to Congress says.
The finding represents the military's strongest characterization of the danger posed by Sadr and is among the conclusions of a quarterly report to Congress that chronicles the instability in Iraq and record level of sectarian violence.
In the last three months, the number of attacks on U.S. and Iraqi troops and Iraqi civilians rose 22%, and the number of U.S. casualties grew 32%, the Pentagon assessment says.
As attacks have risen, the confidence of the Iraqi people has fallen, with fewer saying in surveys that they thought their government could protect them and more agreeing that civil war was likely.
The conclusion that Sadr-related militiamen posed the chief threat to the country's security came after the U.S. military had complained for months that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, a Shiite, had been unable to address armed Shiite groups and had obstructed American efforts to confront Sadr.
It also cast new light on a deteriorating situation that President Bush continued to blame in large part on Al Qaeda.
The dour Pentagon report came hours after Robert M. Gates was sworn in as the 22nd secretary of Defense with a pledge to extract frank assessments from military leaders and deliver plain advice to the president.
"You have asked for my candor and my honest counsel at this critical moment in our nation's history, and you will get both," Gates said.
An introduction to the Pentagon's quarterly Iraq report to Congress praises the Iraqi government for taking greater responsibility for the country. But the assessment also reflects frustration over the inability of the government to improve the economic situation or reconcile sectarian factions.
"The failure of the government to implement concrete actions in these areas has contributed to a situation in which, as of October 2006, there were more Iraqis who expressed a lack of confidence in their government's ability to improve the situation than there were in July 2006," the report says.
The report says the government has nearly reached its original goal of training 325,000 security personnel but that 45,000 police and army troops have been killed or wounded or have quit.
It also notes that a third of the active force is on approved leave at any time. More disturbing, the desertion rate of Iraqi soldiers increases to more than 50% when Iraqi units are deployed outside their areas of operation.
The Iraqi government has been unable to fulfill its promise to move extra battalions to Baghdad, and American commanders in the capital have cited the lack of forces as one reason death squads from warring sects have operated unchecked.
The failure of a growing number of Iraqi security personnel to contain the violence suggests that, in the short term, the U.S. strategy of replacing American troops with Iraqi security forces has not worked.
U.S. commanders say Iraqi security forces have improved -- particularly in their leadership -- but that the violence they are trying to combat has grown much worse.
"The violence has escalated at an unbelievably rapid pace," said Marine Lt. Gen. John F. Sattler, director of strategic plans and policy for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "We have to get ahead of the violence cycle and break that continuous chain of sectarian violence. That is the premier challenge facing us."
From August until November, there were an average of 959 overall attacks on troops and civilians each week -- including an average of 648 against U.S. and coalition forces -- up from 784 attacks from May to August.
"We know what we have to do," Peter Rodman, assistant secretary of Defense for international security, said in a briefing with reporters. "We and the Iraqi government have to contain sectarian violence and bolster the institutions of national unity."
At the ceremony for Gates, Bush spoke about the danger of extremists and radicals in Iraq, although he did not mention Al Qaeda specifically, as he had in recent meetings with British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Maliki. But the Pentagon report makes it plain that sectarian violence is the greatest challenge to American forces and the Iraqi government.
Although there are many armed groups, the report says the most powerful is the Al Mahdi army, a militia nominally loyal to Sadr.
The group that had "the greatest negative affect on the security situation in Iraq is [Al Mahdi], which has replaced Al Qaeda as the most dangerous accelerant of potentially self-sustaining sectarian violence in Iraq," the report says.
Rodman said that assessment was an acknowledgment that Al Qaeda in Iraq's bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra in February had touched off a cycle of sectarian fighting that threatened the stability of the Iraqi government.
"It is a way of saying the sectarian violence is more significant than the insurgency," Rodman said.
"The sectarian violence shakes the structure of a government whose unity is a crucial factor."
The report stops short of calling the sectarian conflict a civil war.
The Al Mahdi army has not been officially declared a "hostile" organization by the United States and Iraq, a designation that would allow American forces to confront the militia on sight.
U.S. troops battled Sadr's forces in 2004, and an Iraqi judge issued an arrest warrant for the cleric, who eventually was persuaded to support the political process.
Sattler suggested that the effort to improve security in Baghdad had failed in part because the military was unable to move into the Sadr City neighborhood in Baghdad and confront the militia.
"As the forces moved forward, they were not able to go in and neutralize Sadr City," Sattler said.
Military officials are wrestling with whether they need to mount a combat offensive against militias loyal to Sadr.
Sattler and Rodman avoided discussing an offensive against the militias but said the policy was under review.
Gates is expected to take charge of the review. Although he has offered no hint of his policy preference, he said failure in Iraq would be a "calamity."
"All of us want to find a way to bring America's sons and daughters home again," Gates said. "But as the president has made clear, we simply cannot afford to fail in the Middle East. Failure in Iraq at this juncture would be a calamity that would haunt our nation, impair our credibility and endanger Americans for decades to come."
The Iraqi government has assumed responsibility for the security of two provinces, one of the report's findings highlighted by Rodman and Sattler.
Three more provinces, in the Kurdish north, may be turned over by the end of the year, the report says.
Army Lt. Col. Chris Garver, a military spokesman in Baghdad, said Najaf in the south would be turned over Wednesday. Rodman said several more provinces were ready to be turned over to Iraqi control next year.
In October, Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the top American commander in Iraq, said his goal was to turn over "six or seven provinces" by year-end.
A military officer in Baghdad said that goal would probably be missed, but not by much.
"I would be surprised if six provinces had been handed over by Dec. 31," said the officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment. "But I would not be surprised if eight or nine [provinces] had been transferred by Jan. 30."
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On the rise
Average weekly attacks on U.S. coalition and Iraqi forces and Iraqi civilians during selected periods:
Apr. 1-June 28, '04: 408
June 29-Nov. 26, '04: 536
National Assembly election
Nov. 27, '04-Feb. 11, '05: 521
Feb. 12-Aug. 28, '05: 463
Aug. 29. '05-Feb. 10, '06: 543
Samarra bombing aftermath
Feb. 11-May 19, '06: 646
May 20-Aug. 11, '06: 784
Aug.-Nov. 10, '06: 959
Source: Department of Defense