Pentagon Issues Grim Iraq Report

Times Staff Writer

Attacks and civilian deaths in Iraq have risen sharply in recent months, with casualties increasing by 1,000 a month, and sectarian violence has engulfed larger areas of the country, the Pentagon said Friday in a strikingly dismal report to Congress.

The quarterly report, based on new government figures, showed the number of attacks in Iraq over the last four months had increased 15% and Iraqi casualties had risen by 51%. Civilian and military deaths and injuries have surpassed 3,000 each month since May.

Over a longer period, the increase in violence is more dramatic. Weekly attacks have nearly doubled, from 423 in spring 2004 to 792. More than 110 people a day died violently in Iraq in the last three months, the report said, up from fewer than 30 a day in 2004.


The Iraqi government reported that violent deaths in Baghdad declined sharply in the first several weeks of August, but civilian deaths rose again in the last week. The current report covers a three-month period that ended in early August.

The report held to previous Bush administration statements that Iraq is not in an all-out civil war, but conceded that “conditions that could lead to civil war exist.”

Overall, the tone of the 63-page report is markedly less optimistic than previous quarterly assessments, which the Pentagon has been required to make since last year.

“This is a pretty sober report,” said Peter Rodman, the assistant secretary of Defense for international security. “The last quarter has been rough. The level of violence is up. And the sectarian quality of the violence is particularly acute and disturbing.”

The data and language of the report also contrasted with recent statements by administration officials who have been seeking to shore up sagging public support for the war.

Administration officials, for example, repeatedly have emphasized that recent violence has been concentrated in Baghdad. The new report notes that violence has increased in Diyala, Mosul and Kirkuk as the sectarian conflict has spread to those cities.


The report also noted that sectarian attacks had set up a cycle of deepening violence in which civilians were driven to “endorse extremist actions on their behalf,” lending their support to the insurgent and militia groups in order to provide security for their neighborhoods. That dynamic is undermining the government’s reconciliation efforts and ability to provide security.

With an election approaching in which the U.S. involvement in Iraq has become the driving issue, Democrats seized on the new assessment.

Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada said the report showed that the administration was “disconnected from the facts on the ground.” His House counterpart, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), said in a statement that the report showed that “prospects for improving security in Iraq in the foreseeable future are bleak.”

Democrats accused the administration of delaying the report until after President Bush delivered a major speech on the war Thursday to the American Legion.

In arguing that Iraq is not yet in a full-scale civil war, Defense officials pointed out that Iraqi security forces had remained loyal to the central government and that no rival government had emerged.

“There are important things that have not happened,” said Rear Adm. William D. Sullivan, vice director for strategic plans and policy on the Pentagon’s Joint Staff. “The sectarian violence is worrisome.... We are not blind to the possibility that this could continue down the wrong path.”


Sullivan said he believed that despite the rise in killings, the U.S. was still making progress in the war.

Outside military analysts were more cautious.

Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies said it was difficult to predict eventual victory or defeat in Iraq but the situation was growing bleaker.

“You could make the case for optimism in the past; you cannot now,” said Cordesman, who has written extensively on Iraq.

The Pentagon’s previous quarterly reports “were unrealistic in every dimension because they understated the insurgency, they grossly overstated economic progress, they were over-optimistic about political progress, and they never seriously addressed the threat of civil conflict,” Cordesman said. “But this report has had to face reality.”

The report noted that Iraqis remained optimistic, but it cautioned that the positive outlook was eroding. About 59% of Iraqis say economic conditions are poor, and 80% of Baghdad residents believe a civil war might break out -- a marked increase in pessimism from last year.

The violence in Iraq cannot be attributed to a unified, organized insurgency, the report noted. Instead, violence is the result of a complex interplay between international terrorists, local insurgents, sectarian death squads, organized militias and criminal groups.


Radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr’s Al Mahdi militia has achieved a “measure of tolerance” from Iraq’s new government, the report said, but violence between the militia and the Iraqi army is frequent. It said the militia receives support from Iran.

One key indicator of full-scale violence identified in previous Pentagon reports is the number of forced displacements of people and households. The U.S. military has been skeptical of reports of large numbers of displaced people, but the Pentagon report quotes a U.N. estimate that 137,862 people have been pushed out of their homes since February, when a famed Shiite mosque was bombed in Samarra.

The bombing is widely credited with setting off the current cycle of sectarian violence. Sunni Arabs allied with Abu Musab Zarqawi, the terrorist leader slain in June in a U.S. attack, were blamed for the mosque attack.

The report is optimistic about the new plan to increase security in Baghdad by promoting economic growth, but provides no numbers about the results of the renewed security initiative.

Rodman cited as a positive development the report’s finding that Iraqi security forces continued to grow in size and skill, assuming greater responsibility over the last 10 months. He said the number of Iraqi army battalions had increased to 85 from 23 in October.

U.S. commanders in Baghdad had promised that the national police system would be improved this year, and the report noted an increase in the number of military trainers.


But serious problems exist with the police battalions, particularly the national police units controlled by the Ministry of Interior.

The report says “unprofessional and, at times, criminal behavior has been attributed to certain units in the national police” and that public confidence in them has weakened.

Some of those units, the report says, owe allegiance to militias, not the central government -- and last month, military officials said they had been forced to dissolve some national police battalions for that reason. The number of police battalions with control over their cities and neighborhoods has decreased from six to two.

In the Pentagon’s May report to Congress, officials expressed hope that rapid political progress would earn confidence from Iraqis and blunt the increase in violence. However, delays in forming a new government under Prime Minister Nouri Maliki quickly undermined those hopes.

Rodman said that if the Iraqi government been able to form more quickly after the December election, the sectarian violence that rose from the Samarra mosque bombing might have been dampened.

“For years, people like Zarqawi have been aiming at this, trying to foment civil war,” Rodman said. “In Samarra they hit pay dirt, in a sense. The system has been shaken by it.... And maybe Zarqawi’s legacy was the Samarra bombing, the effects of which have lived after him.”




Iraq report

A Pentagon report shows that weekly attacks have doubled since the spring of 2004:

April 1 - June 28, ‘04: 423

June 29 - Nov. 26, ‘04: 547

Nov. 27, ’04 - Feb. 11, ‘05: 526

Feb. 12 - Aug. 28, ‘05: 467

Aug. 29, ’05 - Feb. 10, ‘06: 553

Feb. 11 - May 19, ‘06: 641

May 20 - Aug. 11, ‘06: 792


Source: Department of Defense