U.S. commanders plan a summer of stepped-up offensives against Al Qaeda in Iraq as they tailor strategy to their expectation that Congress soon will impose a timeline for drawing down U.S. forces here.
The emphasis on Al Qaeda, described by commanders in interviews here this week, marks a shift in focus from Shiite Muslim militias and death squads in Baghdad. It reflects the belief of some senior officers in Iraq that the militias probably will reduce attacks once it becomes clear that a U.S. pullout is on the horizon. By contrast, they believe Al Qaeda in Iraq could be emboldened by a withdrawal plan and must be confronted before one is in place.
When the Bush administration began sending additional troops to Iraq, U.S. commanders spoke frequently of the threat posed by the Al Mahdi militia, and they issued thinly veiled threats against its leader, radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr. Although military leaders say the militia remains a priority, Sadr has tacitly cooperated with the U.S. troop buildup, telling his followers to avoid confronting U.S. forces. He is also a key supporter of the U.S.-backed government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki.
Now, with the final infantry troops of the U.S. “surge” strategy having arrived in Iraq, the military is increasingly focusing firepower on the Sunni Muslim side in Iraq’s civil war, especially Al Qaeda in Iraq.
“These operations are more on towards Qaeda because they ... are the ones that are creating the truck bombs and car bombs that are having an effect ... on the populace,” Army Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the commander of day-to-day U.S. military operations said in an interview this week. “So we are going after the safe havens that allow them to build these things without a lot of interference.”
Al Qaeda in Iraq is one of several high-profile Sunni Arab groups in the insurgency against U.S. and Iraqi forces. Its fighters are believed to include a significant number of non-Iraqis. Despite its name, the extent of the group’s links to Osama bin Laden is unclear.
U.S. officials, burned by previous claims of progress that turned sour, are offering only the most guarded of forecasts for the current offensives.
“This is the most diabolical enemy out there. I’ve never seen anything like it,” the top U.S. commander here, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, said in an interview.
“It is far and away the most complex situation we’ve been in during my time in uniform,” he said. “I’ve done two other tours here, and this is far and away, orders of magnitude, more complex.”
The point of the current mission, said David Kilcullen, Petraeus’ top counterinsurgency advisor, is not to help Iraq “turn a corner” that would allow the U.S. to leave the country in a state of peace. Instead, U.S. strategists hope to beat back militant groups enough to give Iraq’s Shiite-led government a chance to achieve some measure of stability.
“I don’t know how many times senior leaders in America have said we have turned a corner in Iraq. We’ve turned a corner so many times we are all getting dizzy,” said Kilcullen, a former officer in the Australian army.
“We haven’t turned the tide. We haven’t turned the corner, there isn’t light at the end of the tunnel. But what we have done is take a failing enterprise and put it on a sound long-term footing.”
A reduction in U.S. forces will happen, he added. “We will downsize. Absolutely,” he said. “But what we are trying to do is put the operation on a sound footing so the Iraqis can handle it, and we can make it sufficiently stable.”
The push against Al Qaeda in Iraq, including the offensive over the last two weeks in Baqubah, north of Baghdad, offers several potential advantages for U.S. forces.
The fight involves the kind of high-intensity operations that play to U.S. strengths. It pits American forces against an opponent that the U.S. public already considers an enemy, and provides clear “metrics” for measuring success.
After largely steering away from body counts of insurgents for most of the Iraq war, U.S. officials recently have been reporting the number of militants killed in operations against Al Qaeda.
Beyond these immediate advantages, the strategy is driven by the belief of senior officers that they have a window this summer in which to suppress Al Qaeda activity before a withdrawal timetable is determined.
Al Qaeda’s attacks against Shiite religious sites and civilians brought the Shiite militias into the conflict last year, Petraeus said. Reducing the threat of Al Qaeda will reduce the militia threat, he added.
“Al Qaeda gave them an excuse. Al Qaeda is their raison d’etre,” Petraeus said. “So you really have to reduce Al Qaeda’s ability to carry out sensational attacks.”
If the U.S. can show dramatic progress against Al Qaeda, other pieces of the Iraqi puzzle may fall into place, Petraeus said. For example, Petraeus predicted that pushing back Al Qaeda would help advance what he sees as the most promising development of recent months, the decision by some Sunni tribal leaders to turn against Al Qaeda militants.
“We are striving to capitalize on this,” Petraeus said. The sheiks, he added, “have a sense now that they have a bit more of a stake in a new Iraq. They realize they are not going to run Iraq, but they do want their just due. They do want to participate, truly contribute, and yet the big development is they recognize what Al Qaeda represents is barbaric violence.”
That strategy was set back Monday when a bomb exploded at a hotel in downtown Baghdad, killing five U.S.-allied sheiks who were meeting there.
With operations against Al Qaeda going on all around the outskirts of the capital, what military officers call the Baghdad Belts, Odierno said U.S. forces were starting to see some progress in reducing the number of suicide car and truck bombings.
“And we want to continue that,” he said. “We want to continue to drive that down.”
Top generals say that now for the first time, they have enough forces to root out Al Qaeda fighters by entering havens where U.S. forces have not been for years.
This week Odierno visited one such location -- Salman Pak, a Sunni town on the Tigris River south of Baghdad. He spoke with soldiers as they pushed into Sunni-dominated neighborhoods where U.S. and Iraqi government forces had not ventured for two years.
At a patrol base outside the town, Lt. Col. Ken Adgie, commander of the 1st Battalion, 30th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division, said that foreign Al Qaeda fighters had recruited local toughs by giving them funds and training.
“Al Qaeda came in and said, ‘Here’s some money,’ so they became Al Qaeda, but they are still the same gang of thugs they were back in the day,” Adgie said.
Adgie and his soldiers are trying to win the trust of residents, seeking to convince them that the U.S. and its Iraqi allies will not turn the area back over to militants.
But to make sure the Iraqi army can hold the area, Adgie said, American forces must rout both the foreign and homegrown Al Qaeda forces.
“They have gone to the dark side. They are Al Qaeda,” he said. “We are going to kill them.”