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Hopes for Iraq Pullback Fading

Times Staff Writers

The Pentagon’s hopes of making substantial reductions in U.S. troop levels in Iraq this year appear to be fading as a result of resurgent violence in the country, particularly in the Sunni Arab stronghold of Al Anbar province, military officials acknowledge.

Army Gen. George W. Casey, commander of U.S.-led forces in Iraq, said Tuesday that he was moving 1,500 “backup” troops from Kuwait to Al Anbar, the western region that includes the war-torn cities of Fallouja and Ramadi.

Publicly, Pentagon officials insisted Tuesday that the move was temporary and unrelated to Casey’s much-delayed recommendation on overall troop levels, now expected to be made next month. But other officers have privately acknowledged that the worsening situation in Al Anbar -- particularly in Ramadi, which U.S. officials say is now under insurgent control -- is likely to prevent any significant drawdown this year.

Since the beginning of the year, military commanders have said that progress in forming a government and training the Iraqi military might allow U.S. troop levels to be reduced from more than 130,000 to 100,000 or fewer. But a senior officer privy to Iraq planning discussions, who requested anonymity when discussing internal Pentagon debates, said there was “a growing realization” that ongoing violence was hampering withdrawal plans.

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British Prime Minister Tony Blair hinted at that realization last week when, after a meeting with Casey, he said he expected insurgents to “test” the new Iraqi government “very, very strongly” in coming months. Blair and President Bush, meeting at the White House last week, postponed an anticipated announcement on troop reduction.

On Tuesday, Italy announced it would withdraw its 2,600 troops by year’s end, and South Korea this week began drawing down 1,000 of its 3,200 troops in Iraq.

Ramadi remains the area of most concern, military officials in Iraq and Washington said. Army Brig. Gen. Carter Ham, a senior planner for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last week that Ramadi was “probably the most contentious city right now inside Iraq,” adding that insurgent leader Abu Musab Zarqawi’s organization might be trying to establish a “safe haven” in the city.

“It’s a convenient location in that regard, because of the Euphrates River valley, access to border areas, access into Baghdad,” Ham said. “You could see from that area why it would be an area they’d be interested in.”

Signs that Zarqawi-linked groups have taken over the city have been growing. One by one, Sunni sheiks who had vowed to fight radical Islamic insurgents in Al Anbar province have been assassinated.

Tribal leaders describe Ramadi as a lawless city where American troops are unable to stop the gunmen who threaten and kill residents. U.S. forces in the city, hunkered down in the battle-scarred downtown government center, come under large-scale attack almost daily.

Repeated assaults on officers and recruits have left the city without an effective police force.

Military officials say the deployment of new troops to Al Anbar is not a prelude to an offensive like the one launched in 2004 on Fallouja, which had become a haven for rebels.

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“Moving this force will allow tribal leaders and government officials to go about the very difficult task of taking back their towns from the criminal elements,” said Army Maj. J. Todd Breasseale, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad. “The local sheiks are trying to do the right thing, but they need help doing it.”

Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman, also said that although Al Anbar remained a “challenge,” it did not reflect the security situation in the rest of Iraq. The Pentagon’s congressionally mandated quarterly status report on Iraq, published Tuesday, shows that 81% of attacks over the last three months came in four central provinces, including Al Anbar, while the remaining regions were comparatively peaceful.

But the report also shows an increase in the overall average number of attacks, from fewer than 500 per week last year to more than 600 per week in the most recent quarter. The increase was attributed to sectarian violence that erupted after the February bombing of a prominent Shiite mosque in Samarra.

On average, nearly 80 Iraqis were killed or wounded every day from mid-February through mid-May, up from the previous quarter’s 60 per day. At least 92 U.S. soldiers have been killed in Al Anbar since the start of the year.

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Ramadi residents say they have detected an intensified U.S. effort in recent days to wrest control of the city’s streets from insurgents. A Sunni sheik said residents had begun to flee as American forces stepped up bombing raids and ground patrols in the last 10 days.

Ibrahim Zaki Humadi, 37, who left Ramadi with his wife and five children three weeks ago, said U.S. troops had cordoned off his neighborhood with concrete blocks and set up sniper positions. Residents must signal the soldiers when they want to leave the area, he said.

“They are fortifying their positions and are shooting at everyone who moves who doesn’t carry a white flag, and even that cannot guarantee your survival,” he said, referring to Iraqi as well as American troops. “The situation is miserable.”

Ali Hatim Salman, a tribal sheik in Al Anbar, said an increasing number of civilians were fleeing Ramadi, either for its suburbs or Baghdad, at least in part because they suspect the U.S. is preparing an offensive.

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“Some areas in Ramadi are controlled completely by the terrorists,” Salman said. “If the Americans want to stabilize the city, they can do that.”

If commanders decide to launch a large-scale offensive in Ramadi, they may have to wait until the new government in Baghdad is more firmly in place. Prime Minister Nouri Maliki has yet to appoint a defense or interior minister, and a U.S. intelligence official said coalition officers had refrained from launching such an operation because of opposition from the preceding interim government.

Speaking weeks before Casey had committed the new troops to Baghdad, the intelligence official said U.S. Marines, who are deployed in Al Anbar, as early as December had been discussing plans for a major sweep in Ramadi, but remained concerned about a potentially adverse political fallout, as occurred after offensives in Fallouja and Najaf.

“Ramadi is literally a bloody stalemate,” the intelligence official said. “The governor is a prisoner in his own provincial capital building.”

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An attack on Ramadi would force U.S. commanders to draw on significant manpower to clear out and then stabilize the region, as well as to prepare contingencies for any backlash.

“You can’t do that and withdraw at the same time,” said another military officer.

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Roug reported from Baghdad and Spiegel from Washington. Times staff writers Solomon Moore and Raheem Salman in Baghdad and Julian E. Barnes in Washington contributed to this report.

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