A Pentagon assessment of security conditions in Iraq concluded Monday that attacks against American and Iraqi targets had surged this summer and autumn to their highest level, and called violence by Shiite militants the most significant threat in Baghdad.
The report, which covers the period from early August to early November, found an average of almost 960 attacks against Americans and Iraqis every week, the highest level recorded since the Pentagon began issuing the quarterly reports in 2005, with the biggest surge in attacks against American-led forces. That was an increase of 22 percent from the level for early May to early August, the report said.
While most attacks were directed at American forces, most deaths and injuries were suffered by the Iraqi military and civilians.
The report is the most comprehensive public assessment of the American-led operation to secure Baghdad, which began in early August. About 17,000 American combat troops are currently involved in the beefed-up security operation.
According to the Pentagon assessment, the operation initially had some success in reducing killings as militants concentrated on eluding capture and hiding their weapons. But sectarian death squads soon adapted, resuming their killings in regions of the capital that were not initially targets of the overstretched American and Iraqi troops.
An Iraqi youth mourns the death of his brother outside the morgue of a hospital in the restive city of Baquba in November 2006. Outside Baghdad, the epicentre of the violence, the starkest evidence of the murderous rage engulfing the country is in Diyala province.(AFP/File/Ali Yussef)
Shiite militias, the Pentagon report said, also received help from allies among the Iraqi police. “Shia death squads leveraged support from some elements of the Iraqi Police Service and the National Police who facilitated freedom of movement and provided advance warning of upcoming operations,” the report said.
“This is a major reason for the increased levels of murders and executions.”
The findings were issued on the day Robert M. Gates was sworn in as defense secretary, replacing Donald H. Rumsfeld.
At an afternoon ceremony at the Pentagon attended by President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, Mr. Gates said he planned to travel to Iraq shortly to consult with military commanders as part of a broad administration review of Iraq strategy.
“All of us want to find a way to bring America’s sons and daughters home again,” Mr. Gates said. “But as the president has made clear, we simply cannot afford to fail in the Middle East. Failure in Iraq would be a calamity that would haunt our nation, impair our credibility and endanger Americans for decades to come.”
Over all, the report portrayed a precarious security situation and criticized Shiite militias for the worsening violence more explicitly than previous versions had.
It said the Mahdi Army, a powerful Shiite militia that Prime Minister Nuri Kamal Al-Maliki has not confronted despite American pressure to do so, had had the greatest negative impact on security. It is likely that Shiite militants are now responsible for more civilian deaths and injuries than terrorist groups are, the report said.
But the report also held out hope that decisive leadership by the Iraqi government might halt the slide toward civil war.
While noting that efforts by Mr. Maliki to encourage political reconciliation among ethnic groups had shown little progress, it said that Iraqi institutions were holding and that members of the current government “have not openly abandoned the political process.”
The Pentagon assessment, titled “Measuring Stability and Security in Iraq,” is mandated by Congress and issued quarterly.
The new report, completed last month, noted two parallel trends.
On the one hand, the Iraqi security forces are larger than ever, with 322,600 Iraqi soldiers, police officers and other troops, an increase of 45,000 since August. Iraqi forces also have increasingly taken the lead responsibility in many areas.
The growth in Iraqi capabilities, however, has been matched by increasing violence. That raises the question of whether the American strategy to rely on the Iraqi forces to tamp down violence is failing, at least in the short term.
The Bush administration has decided to step up substantially the effort to train and equip the Iraqi forces. A major question being pondered by Mr. Bush is whether that is sufficient, or whether more American troops are needed in Baghdad to control the violence and stabilize the city.
According to the Pentagon, the weekly average of 959 attacks was a jump of 175 from the previous three months. As a consequence, civilian deaths and injuries reached a record 93 a day.
Deaths and injuries suffered by Iraq’s security forces also climbed to a new high, 33 a day, while American and other allied deaths and injuries hovered at 25 a day, just short of the record in 2004, when the United States was involved in battles in Falluja and elsewhere.
The increase in violence coincided with the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, when there had previously been a temporary spike in attacks, but also reflected the deeper sectarian passions that have flared since an attack in February 2006 on a Shiite shrine in Samarra.
According to Pentagon data used in formulating the report, there were 1,028 sectarian “executions” in October. That was a slight dip from July, when there were 1,169 executions, but a major increase since January, when there were 180. During this period, “ethno-sectarian incidents” have steadily risen, the report noted.
Security difficulties varied in different parts of the country. While sectarian strife was the biggest problem in Baghdad, in Anbar Province it was attacks by Sunni militants. North of Baghdad, in Diyala and Bilad, terrorists linked to Al Qaeda have been battling the Mahdi Army, it says.
While Shiite militias are active, the group known as Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia is still a major threat, despite the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, its leader. “The emergence of Abu Ayub al-Masri as leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq demonstrated its flexibility and depth, as well as its reliance on non-Iraqis,” the report noted.
Indications of progress were few. The report credited the Iraqi government with taking “incremental” steps at assuming more responsibility and said its security forces “have assumed more leadership in counterinsurgency and law enforcement operations.” But it remained “urgent” for the Iraqi government “to demonstrate a resolve to contain and terminate sectarian attacks.”
In a briefing for reporters, Lt. Gen. John F. Sattler, a senior aide to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the Baghdad operation had been constrained because the Iraqi government had not allowed American and Iraqi troops to “go in and neutralize Sadr City,” the base for the Mahdi Army.
Crude oil output was 2.3 million barrels a day, 7.5 percent higher than in August but still below the government’s goal of 2.5 million barrels.
Proponents of sending more troops to Iraq cited the report to argue that only Americans could ensure security in the short term and that more were needed. Critics said it showed that the initial effort by the American military to reinforce Baghdad had failed to stop the killing.
Gen. James T. Conway, who took over this fall as commandant of the Marine Corps, told reporters in Missouri on Saturday that among other options, President Bush was considering sending five or more combat brigades to Iraq, or about 20,000 troops.
General Conway said he believed that the Joint Chiefs would support such an increase as long as “there is a solid military reason for doing so.” He said sending more troops just to be “thickening the mix” in Baghdad would be a mistake.
Representative Ike Skelton, Democrat of Missouri, the new chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said he was opposed to more troops. “Everything I’ve heard and everything I know to be true lead me to believe that this increase at best won’t change a thing,” he said, “and at worst could exacerbate the situation even further.”
Carl Hulse contributed reporting.
Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company