Published on Tuesday, August 15, 2006 by McClatchy Newspapers
Rosy Assessments on Iraq 'Not Related to Reality,' Some Say
by Tom Lasseter
TIKRIT, Iraq - As security conditions continue to deteriorate in Iraq, many Iraqi politicians are challenging the optimistic forecasts of governments in Baghdad and Washington, with some worrying that the rosy views are preventing the creation of effective strategies against the escalating violence.
Their worst fear, one that some American soldiers share, is that top officials don't really understand what's happening. Those concerns seem to be supported by statistics that show Iraq's violence has increased steadily during the past three years.
"The American policy has failed both in terms of politics and security, but the big problem is that they will not confess or admit that," said Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish member of parliament. "They are telling the American public that the situation in Iraq will be improved, they want to encourage positive public opinion (in the U.S.), but the Iraqi citizens are seeing something different. They know the real situation."
Othman charges that top American officials spend most of their time in the heavily guarded Green Zone in Baghdad and at large military bases across the country, and don't know what's happening in the neighborhoods and provinces beyond.
Shiite Muslim parliament member Jalaladin al Saghir had a similar view.
"All the American policies have failed because the American analysis of the situation is wrong; it is not related to reality," Saghir said. "The slaughtered Iraqi man on the street conveys the best explanation" for what's happening in Iraq.
Some U.S. soldiers in Iraq reluctantly agree.
"As an intelligence officer ... I have had the chance to move around Baghdad on mounted and dismounted patrols and see the city and violence from the ground," wrote one American military officer in Iraq. "I think that the greatest problem that we deal (besides the insurgents and militia) with is that our leadership has no real comprehension of the ground truth. I wish that I could offer a solution, but I can't. When I have briefed General Officers, I have given them my perspective and assessment of the situation. Many have been surprised at what I have to say, but I suspect that in the end nothing will or has changed."
McClatchy is withholding the officer's name to protect him from possible retaliation by his superiors or political appointees in the Pentagon for communicating with the news media without authorization.
American officials and Iraqi officials appointed by them continue to orchestrate ceremonies, news conferences and speeches that suggest that things are getting better.
In Tikrit last week, Gen. George W. Casey Jr. walked across the marble floor of a palace, smiling and shaking hands. It was a good day for Iraq, he said.
The Iraqi army's 4th Division was taking the lead in securing three provinces, and senior Iraqi and U.S. officials had gathered for a celebration marked by dancing soldiers and passionate speeches.
Iraq's national security adviser, Mowaffak al Rubaie, walked to the lectern and, his voice rising with emotion, said to a cheering crowd of Iraqi and American officials: "My dear friends, I will tell you something, the only way to end terrorism - there is no other way - is that we stand together."
The commander of the 4th Division, Lt. Gen. Abdul Aziz Abdel-Rahman, told the crowd that Iraq was heading toward safety and democracy.
In the week that followed, at least 110 Iraqis died in a series of bombings and shootings, and at least eight U.S. soldiers and Marines were killed. The Iraqi death toll probably was much higher, since many Iraqis are killed by death squads and their bodies are undiscovered, buried or dumped in rivers.
Another 47 Iraqis were killed and 100 wounded Sunday in what Iraqi officials said was a barrage of rockets and car bombs; U.S. officials disputed those accounts, saying the casualties were due to a gas explosion.
Nationwide statistics during the past three years suggest that American efforts to secure Iraq aren't succeeding. While various military operations have at times improved security in parts of the country, the bloodshed has mounted with each U.S.-declared step of progress, according to figures that the Brookings Institution research center compiled from news and government reports.
When L. Paul Bremer, then the top U.S. representative in Iraq, appointed an Iraqi Governing Council in July 2003, insurgent attacks averaged 16 daily. When Saddam Hussein was captured that December, the average was 19. When Bremer signed the hand-over of sovereignty in June 2004, it was 45 attacks daily. When Iraq held its elections for a transitional government in January 2005, it was 61. When Iraqis voted last December for a permanent government, it was 75. When U.S. forces killed terrorist mastermind Abu Musab al Zarqawi in June, it was up to 90.
Attacks have increased in lethality as well as number: There was one multiple-fatality bombing in July 2003. Last month, there were at least 51.
And while the number of U.S. troops killed by hostile fire has declined this year, the number of Iraqis killed has soared.
In January, the month after Iraq's widely heralded national elections for a permanent government, at least 710 civilians were killed, according to a report by the United Nations that cited Iraqi Ministry of Health figures. (The report made it clear that the actual number for January was much higher.) Five months later, 3,149 Iraqis were killed in June.
Casey acknowledged in an interview with ABC News last week that things were "very difficult right now." But the remainder of his response made no reference to the trend line of expanding violence.
"Now, what's gone on over the last two years?" he said. "There's been great progress over the last two years, and you've been here enough where you've seen the situation ebb and flow just like it is now. We're ebbing right now. And we're going to come out of it just like we have in the other places."
Top U.S. military officials often point to the Iraqi security forces as the way forward. In June 2004, there was just one Iraqi army battalion. Today, there are 10 divisions.
But recent interviews with American soldiers in and around Baghdad suggest that some Iraqi security forces are contributing to the problem.
Last month, gunmen marauded through a Sunni Muslim neighborhood in western Baghdad, dragging people from their homes and cars and shooting them. Iraqi police said that more than 40 were killed.
To get into the neighborhood, the gunmen had to drive through Iraqi police and army checkpoints, said American 1st Lt. Brian Johnson of the 4th Infantry Division, who leads a platoon on the western edge of Baghdad.
"Those gunmen drove up in five or six trucks full of (Shiite) Mahdi militiamen with AK-47 bandoleers across their chests and they drove through IP (Iraqi police) and IA (Iraqi army) checkpoints," said Johnson, 24, who's from Houston. "The IAs and the IPs are in the Mahdi militia's pocket ... an IP will come off the checkpoint and a Mahdi militia guy will put on his uniform, man the checkpoint and start pulling people from their cars."
Joost Hiltermann, the Middle East project director at the nonprofit International Crisis Group, which has released a series of reports about Iraq, said there'd been too much emphasis on scoring political points in the United States.
"One of the key problems all along of the U.S. approach to nation-building in Iraq has been that it was ... not (guided) by the situation on the ground. This is how certain benchmarks were set, and then celebrated when achieved, without any regard for developments taking place that undermined these very successes," Hiltermann said. "This was always more about generating an American success story at home than about doing the right thing in Iraq."
© 2006 McClatchy Washington Bureau and wire service sources