BAGHDAD -- American military commanders in Baghdad and Washington gave a sobering new assessment on Wednesday of the war in Iraq, adding to the mood of anxiety that prompted Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to come to Baghdad last weekend to consult with the new government.
In interviews and briefings this week, some of the generals pulled back from recent suggestions, some by the same officers, that positive trends in Iraq could allow a major drawdown in the 138,000 American troops late this year or early in 2006. One officer suggested Wednesday that American military involvement could last "many years."
Gen. John P. Abizaid, the top American officer in the Middle East, said in a briefing in Washington that one problem was the disappointing progress in developing Iraqi police units cohesive enough to mount an effective challenge to insurgents and allow American forces to begin stepping back from the fighting. General Abizaid, who speaks with President Bush and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld regularly, was in Washington this week for a meeting of regional commanders.
Recent polls conducted by Baghdad University had shown confidence (in the new govenment) flagging sharply, to 45 percent, down from an 85 percent rating immediately after the election.
In Baghdad, a senior officer said Wednesday in a background briefing that the 21 car bombings in Baghdad so far this month almost matched the total of 25 in all of last year.
Against this, he said, there has been a lull in insurgents' activity in Baghdad in recent days after months of some of the bloodiest attacks, a trend that suggested that American pressure, including the capture of important bomb makers, had left the insurgents incapable of mounting protracted offensives. But the officer said that despite Americans' recent successes in disrupting insurgent cells, which have resulted in the arrest of 1,100 suspects in Baghdad alone in the past 80 days, the success of American goals in Iraq was not assured.
"I think that this could still fail," the officer said at the briefing, referring to the American enterprise in Iraq. "It's much more likely to succeed, but it could still fail."
The officer said much depended on the new government's success in bolstering public confidence among Iraqis. He said recent polls conducted by Baghdad University had shown confidence flagging sharply, to 45 percent, down from an 85 percent rating immediately after the election. "For the insurgency to be successful, people have to believe the government can't survive," he said. "When you're in the middle of a conflict, you're trying to find pillars of strength to lean on." Another problem cited by the senior officer in Baghdad was the new government's ban on raids on mosques, announced on Monday, which the American officer said he expected to be revised after high-level discussions on Wednesday between American commanders and Iraqi officials.
The officer said the ban appeared to have been announced by the new defense minister, Sadoun al-Dulaimi, without wider government approval, and would be replaced by a "more moderate" policy. To raise the level of public confidence, the officer said, the new government would need success in cutting insurgent attacks and meeting popular impatience for improvements in public services like electricity that are worse, for many Iraqis, than they were last year. But he emphasized the need for caution - and the time it may take to complete the American mission here - notes that recur often in the private conversations of American officers in Iraq.
"I think it's going to succeed in the long run, even if it takes years, many years," he said. On a personal note, he added that he, like many American soldiers, had spent long periods of duty related to Iraq, and he said: "We believe in the mission that we've got. We believe in it because we're in it, and if we let go of the insurgency and take our foot off its throat, then this country could fail and go back into civil war and chaos."
Only weeks ago, in the aftermath of the elections, American generals offered a more upbeat view, one that was tied to a surge of Iraqi confidence that one commander in Baghdad now describes as euphoria. But this week, five high-ranking officers, speaking separately at the Pentagon and in Baghdad, and through an e-mail exchange from Baghdad with a reporter in Washington, ranged with unusual candor and detail over problems confronting the war effort.
By insisting that they not be identified, the three officers based in Baghdad were following a Pentagon policy requiring American commanders in Baghdad to put "an Iraqi face" on the war, meaning that Iraqi commanders should be the ones talking to reporters, not Americans. That policy has been questioned recently by senior Americans in Iraq, who say Iraqi commanders have failed to step forward, leaving a news vacuum that has allowed the insurgents' successful attacks, not their failures, to dominate news coverage.
The generals' remarks, emphasizing the insurgency's resilience but also American and Iraqi successes in disrupting them, suggested that American commanders may have seen an opportunity after Secretary Rice's trip to inject their own note of realism into public debate. In talks with Iraq's new Shiite leaders, she urged a more convincing effort to reach out to the dispossessed Sunni Arab minority, warning that success in the war required a political strategy that encouraged at least some Sunni insurgent groups to turn toward peace.
The generals said the buildup of Iraqi forces has been more disappointing than previously acknowledged, contributing to the absence of any Iraqi forces when a 1,000-member Marine battle group mounted an offensive last week against insurgent strongholds in the northwestern desert, along the border with Syria.
American officers said that 125 insurgents had been killed, with the loss of about 14 Americans, but acknowledged that lack of sufficient troops may have helped many insurgents to flee across the border or back into the interior of Iraq. The border offensive was wrapped up over the weekend, with an air of disappointment that some of wider goals had not been achieved - possibly including the capture of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Islamic militant who is the American forces' most-wanted man in Iraq.
General Abizaid, whose Central Command headquarters exercises oversight of the war, said the Iraqi police - accounting for 65,000 of the 160,000 Iraqis now trained and equipped in the $5.7 billion American effort to build up security forces - are "behind" in their ability to shoulder a major part of the war effort. He blamed a tendency among Iraqi police to operate as individuals rather than in cohesive units, and said this made them more vulnerable to insurgents' intimidation.
Another American officer, in an e-mail message from Baghdad, suggested a wider problem in preparing Iraqi forces capable of taking over much of the fighting, which was the Pentagon's goal when it ordered a top-to-bottom shakeout last year in the retraining effort. He said the numbers of Iraqi troops and police officers graduating from training were only one measure of success.
"Everyone looks at the number of Iraqi forces and scratches their heads, but it is more complex than that," he said. "We certainly don't want to put forces into the fight before they can stand up, as in Falluja," the battle last November that gave American commanders their first experience of Iraqi units, mostly highly trained special forces' units, that could contribute significantly to an American offensive.
One of starkest revelations by the commanders involved the surge in car bombings, the principal insurgent weapon in attacks over the past three weeks that have killed nearly 500 people across central and northern Iraq, about half of them Iraqi soldiers, police officers and recruits.
Last week, Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top American trainer in Iraq, defended the Iraqi security forces, saying in an e-mail message, "They are operating effectively with coalition forces - and, in some cases, are operating independently - in the effort to find the locations at which vehicles are rigged with explosives."
The senior officer who met with reporters in Baghdad said there had been 21 car bombings in the capital in May, and 126 in the past 80 days. All last year, he said, there were only about 25 car bombings in Baghdad.
[On Thursday, gunmen shot and killed a former senior Iraqi Oil Ministry official, Ali Hameed, in Baghdad, an Interior Ministry official said.]
The officer said American military intelligence had information that the car-bombing offensive had been ordered by a high-level meeting of insurgents in Syria within the past 30 days, and that reports indicated that one of those at the meeting may have been Mr. Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born militant who was named by Osama bin Laden earlier this year as Al Qaeda's chief in Iraq. In statements on Islamic Web sites, groups loyal to Mr. Zarqawi have claimed responsibility for many of the car bombings.
The officer said that in two of the recent Baghdad bombings, investigators had found indications that the men driving the cars had been bound with duct tape before the attacks. He said the foot of one of the attackers, in a marketplace bombing last week that killed 22 people in south Baghdad, had been found taped to his vehicle's accelerator. In another case, the officer said, the attacker's hands were taped to the vehicle's wheel.
The implication was that those planning the attacks wanted to be sure that the vehicles would continue to their targets even if the drivers were killed by American or Iraqi gunfire as they approached.
Arriving at a lunch with reporters from a meeting with Iraqi cabinet ministers and military commanders, the officer said he expected the government to make an early move to revise the defense minister's announcement of a ban on raids on mosques and religious schools. The revised policy, the American officer implied, would allow Iraqi forces, backed by Americans, to raid mosques when they are used as insurgent strongholds.
John F. Burns reported from Baghdad for this article and Eric Schmitt from Washington. Richard A. Oppel Jr. contributed reporting from Baghdad.
Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company