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General’s call for more troops may signal a new tone

Times Staff Writers

The commander of U.S. forces in northern Iraq said Friday that he did not have enough troops to deal with the escalating violence in Iraq’s Diyala province, an unusually frank assertion for a top officer and a sign that American military officials might be starting to offer more candid and blunt assessments of the war.

Army Maj. Gen. Benjamin R. “Randy” Mixon also said that the Iraqi government had failed to help the situation in the restive province and that it has been a hindrance at times by failing to support local army and police forces. Diyala borders Baghdad on the east, and violence in the province has grown as U.S. troop levels have been bolstered in the capital.

Mixon’s call for help coincides with a rise in the number of sectarian death squad killings in Baghdad. U.S. officials had heralded an earlier decline in such deaths as a sign of the success of the security clampdown in the capital that began Feb. 13.

Iraq’s Interior Ministry said 234 people -- men whose bodies were found throughout the capital -- died at the hands of death squads in the first 11 days of May, compared with 137 in the same period of April. The tally so far for May is more than half the total for all of April, when 440 bodies were found. That was a decline from previous months.

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Calling the increase “very minimal,” U.S. military spokesman Army Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV said that “there has been a slight uptick, and we’re obviously very concerned about it.”

Mixon, speaking Friday by teleconference from Camp Speicher, outside Tikrit, to a Pentagon news conference, said that he did not have enough soldiers to provide security in Diyala. The local government is “nonfunctional” and the central government is “ineffective,” he said.

“I’m going to need additional forces,” he said, “to get that situation to a more acceptable level, so the Iraqi security forces will be able in the future to handle that.”

It is rare for an officer of Mixon’s rank to publicly call for more troops. When Donald H. Rumsfeld was secretary of Defense, there was intense pressure on officers to not make such requests, even privately, according to officers who served in Iraq.

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Mixon was withering in his criticism of the Iraqi government, saying it was hamstrung by bureaucracy and compromised by corruption and sectarian discord, making it unable to assist U.S. forces in Diyala.

The province is ethnically mixed and has long been home to elements of the Sunni Muslim-based insurgency. As the number of American forces has increased in Baghdad and Al Anbar province in the west, radicals in the insurgency and in Shiite Muslim death squads have moved into Diyala, which has fewer U.S. troops.

There is one U.S. Army brigade, or about 3,500 troops, in the province, compared with 10 brigades in and around Baghdad and four in Al Anbar. Sixty-one U.S. soldiers have been killed in Diyala this year, compared with 20 last year, according to icasualties.org, an independent website that tracks casualties.

Mixon emphasized that he had asked for more troops shortly after arriving in Iraq in September, well before the U.S. troop buildup began in Baghdad.

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Mixon said he saw that violence was rising and that the region was becoming a stronghold for Sunni extremists tied to the group Al Qaeda in Iraq.

He said that he had been given a battalion, or about 800 soldiers, as reinforcement and that Army Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the day-to-day commander in Iraq, has said he would send additional forces when possible.

“The level of violence began to increase before the surge,” Mixon said, referring to the Baghdad buildup. “It has increased, of course, during the surge ... [because] we are sure that there are elements, both Sunni extremist and Shia extremist, that have moved out of Baghdad.”

Mixon’s comments were the first of what could be a succession of blunt evaluations by officers under Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, said retired Army Maj. Gen. William L. Nash, a veteran of the Bosnian conflict who is now an analyst with the Council on Foreign Relations.

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“I suspect the new Defense secretary has told general officers to speak their minds,” Nash said.

“It’s going to be hard for some in the administration -- suddenly they’re going to feel it from the inside. I think you’re going to see more of it,” he said.

One Pentagon official said Mixon’s public request was being viewed as an attempt to pressure the new commander in Iraq, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, into sending more troops to Diyala from Baghdad, since the overstretched Army is unable to send substantial numbers of reinforcements from the U.S.

But Mixon is not known for dealing with private disputes in such ways, said one recently retired Army general who is close to the commander. Instead, his frankness probably stems from a new “command climate” under Petraeus that is more conducive to blunt evaluations, the general said.

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Many Army generals also have been stung by disclosures by officers. A recent article in the Armed Forces Journal by Lt. Col. Paul Yingling, an Iraq veteran who is deputy commander of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, accused the Army’s top generals of botching the war and misleading the American public and Congress.

“That’s weighing on the consciences of the general officers of our Army,” Nash said. Yingling “said they failed to live up to their sacred oath of telling the truth. As a consequence, I think everybody is saying: ‘Not me. I’m not going to be guilty of that.’ ”

In Baghdad, where the Interior Ministry reports the number of bodies found on the city’s desolate streets, in its rubble heaps and empty lots and under overpasses and bridges, there is little indication of who is doing the killing or whether the victims are Sunni or Shiite.

Death squad killings have generally been linked to Shiite militias. At the start of the Baghdad security crackdown, the militias reined in their activities as U.S. and Iraqi troops set up dragnets to enforce the plan. The pullback also came at the order of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr, who was lending support to the Shiite-led government.

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The security plan, however, has failed to quell attacks on Shiites by Sunni insurgents, so it was natural that some Shiite militiamen would return to action, said Joost Hiltermann, an expert on Iraq’s sectarian war at the International Crisis Group in Amman, Jordan.

“It is consistent with what we know, which is that the Sadrist movement, which melted away once the surge was announced, is very unhappy about the leadership ordering them to go underground,” Hiltermann said. Now, he said, many Shiite fighters, both from Sadr’s Al Mahdi militia and from the Badr Organization, a rival Shiite group, have been provoked by escalating suicide bombings.

Hiltermann said many of them probably were operating independently, as Shiite leaders have continued to urge restraint.

“It is still limited compared to what it was” before the security plan, he said, when masked gunmen often set up illegal checkpoints. Sunnis traveling through Shiite areas or Shiites traveling through Sunni areas could be dragged from their cars and executed if stopped at such checkpoints.

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In January, death squads killed 830 people, and it was common for more than 40 bodies to be found each day. The toll dropped to 530 in February, when the security plan began, and was 542 in March.

peter.spiegel@latimes.com

susman@latimes.com

garrett.therolf@latimes.com

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Spiegel reported from Washington and Susman and Therolf from Baghdad.


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