U.S. military leaders in Iraq are increasingly convinced that most of the broad political goals President Bush laid out early this year in his announcement of a troop buildup will not be met this summer and are seeking ways to redefine success.
In September, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top American commander in Iraq, is scheduled to present Congress with an assessment of progress in Iraq. Military officers in Baghdad and outside advisors working with Petraeus doubt that the three major goals set by U.S. officials for the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki will be achieved by then.
Enactment of a new law to share Iraq’s oil revenue among Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish regions is the only goal they think might be achieved in time, and even that is considered a long shot. The two other key benchmarks are provincial elections and a deal to allow more Sunni Arabs into government jobs.
With overhauls by the central government stalled and with security in Baghdad still a distant goal, Petraeus’ advisors hope to focus on smaller achievements that they see as signs of progress, including local deals among Iraq’s rival factions to establish areas of peace in some provincial cities.
“Some of it will be infrastructure that is being worked, some of it is local security for neighborhoods, some of it is markets reopening,” said a senior military official in Baghdad who spoke on condition of anonymity in discussing military tactics.
Military officers said they understood that any report that key goals had not been met would add to congressional Democrats’ skepticism. But some counterinsurgency advisors to Petraeus have said it was never realistic to expect that Iraqis would reach agreement on some of their most divisive issues after just a few months of the American troop buildup.
The advisors and military officers say the local deals and advances they see are not insignificant and can be building blocks of wider sectarian reconciliation.
Military officers in Iraq said the efforts included recruiting Sunni Arab nationalists into security forces, forging agreements among neighborhoods of rival sects, establishing new businesses in once-violent areas and shifting local attitudes.
Frederick W. Kagan, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research and early advocate of the troop buildup, said the military would have few major political accomplishments to report by September. “I think the political progress will be mostly of this local variety,” said Kagan, who recently visited Iraq and met with American commanders.
Over the last six months, military leaders have pointed to the success of Army Col. Sean MacFarland in negotiating with tribal leaders in Ramadi to bring relatives into the local security forces and win their support against Al Qaeda insurgents in Al Anbar province.
Kagan said commanders in Diyala, Salahuddin and Babil provinces have been working on similar deals. “The whole Anbar thing has snowballed,” he said. “A lot of people want to play.”
The push for smaller, local deals represents a significant shift for the Bush administration, which has emphasized that security in Baghdad has to be the top priority to allow the central government to make progress toward national political reconciliation. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates have pressured Iraqi political leaders to reach key agreements by the end of summer.
But Gates said last week that U.S. officials may have over-emphasized the importance of Iraq’s central government.
“One of the concerns that I’ve had,” Gates said, “was whether we had focused too much on central government construction in both Iraq and Afghanistan and not enough on the cultural and historical, provincial, tribal and other entities that have played an important role in the history of both countries.”
The new command has realized that there will be no quick national-level deal on the key issues, said the senior military officer in Baghdad.
“You are talking about Sunnis who had power and Shiites who have power forgetting about what happened over the last 30 years,” the officer said. “How easy is that going to be?”
In Iraq, local leaders have doubts about the central government’s abilities to make a meaningful deal.
“The sheiks are not waiting to see if the law is passed or not,” Kagan said. “The Iraqi local leaders clearly don’t see reconciliation as something that has to come from the top or necessarily should come from the top.”
Military analysts have said the local deals now being forged often include bringing members of a tribe or sect into the security forces, then providing them with armored vehicles and weapons. But if the groups refuse to cooperate, military forces conduct disruptive neighborhood sweeps, raiding houses and hunting for insurgents.
Outside experts who have advised the command in Iraq have publicly called for military commanders to be more aggressive in working on deals at the local level, and to use carrots and sticks to get factions to support the American war effort.
“The kinds of broad threats now popular in the U.S. -- ‘You Iraqis get yourselves in order and negotiate a deal or we leave’ -- are way too blunt an instrument,” said Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations, a former Army War College instructor who has advised commanders. “It has to be much more discriminating.”
Although military commanders in Baghdad have not explicitly been giving or withholding assistance to communities based on cooperation, they have been stepping up efforts to forge agreements with local leaders about how best to secure neighborhoods, military officers said.
Those discussions could involve the kind of security to provide to marketplaces, where to place protective walls and where to build new security stations, the senior military officer said.
Kagan said it would be difficult to replicate the Al Anbar-style deals in Baghdad, where tribal ties remain weak and many families have been displaced from their traditional neighborhoods.
But Biddle suggested that the carrots-and-sticks approach could be used in Baghdad.
“If the nature of the problem is to terminate a communal struggle, then the only way to do that is to strong-arm the parties into a cease-fire agreement,” Biddle said. “There are all kinds of downsides to using military force as a source of sticks and carrots for this purpose. It could easily fail. But if we don’t try it, I am confident we will fail.”
Times staff writers Paul Richter and Peter Spiegel in Washington contributed to this report.