Is Gates Channeling Cheney on Iraq with 'Last Gasp' Remark?

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McClatchy Newspapers

Is Gates Channeling Cheney on Iraq with 'Last Gasp' Remark?

by
Nancy A. Youssef

US soldiers patrol Mosul in 2008.

A suicide bomber killed five US soldiers and two Iraqi policemen when he rammed his explosives-laden truck into a sandbagged wall surrounding a police headquarters in Mosul on Friday It was the deadliest attack on American forces in Iraq for more than a year.

A sixth US soldier and 17 Iraqi policemen were wounded in the blast near the national headquarters in the country's north. Suicide bombings continue to threaten the city, which US troops must leave by 30 June under an agreement with the Iraqis.

(AFP/Ali Yussef)

WASHINGTON - Midway through a week of mayhem in Iraq, Defense
Secretary Robert Gates raised eyebrows when he said the recent
resurgence of violence in Baghdad was "a last gasp" of Islamic
extremists.

It was an echo of former Vice President Dick Cheney, who in 2005 said
the insurgency was "in the last throes." The following two years were
the deadliest period of the war.

Today,
as in 2005, other top U.S. military and intelligence officials worry
that escalating tensions could threaten the administration's plans to
draw down American forces in Iraq.

A
truck bomb Friday in the northern city of Mosul killed five U.S.
soldiers in the deadliest attack on U.S. forces in 13 months. Since
Monday, a series of explosions around the country has killed at least
60 Iraqis and injured 200.

Speaking Tuesday on "The News Hour" on
PBS, Gates said that recent violence in Baghdad was an attempt by "al
Qaida, trying sort of as a last gasp, to try and reverse the progress
that's been made."

Asked why Gates played down the rise in
suicide bombings, a top administration official told McClatchy: "He
made a mistake. This is more likely the first gasp of more violence,
not the last."

The official, who insisted on anonymity because of
the consequences of publicly criticizing a cabinet officer, said that
contrary to what Gates said, most U.S. intelligence and military
officials are afraid that ethnic and sectarian violence in Iraq could
explode again because, the official said: "All sides are just waiting
for us to leave to finish settling scores."

Tensions over land
and oil recently have been increasing between Sunni Kurds and Sunni
Arabs in northern Iraq, especially in Mosul and the oil-rich city of
Kirkuk, and between Sunnis and Shiites in Baghdad and elsewhere.

"Clearly,
changes are happening," said a senior defense official, who also
requested anonymity for similar reasons. "We are watching this in terms
of where the trends go. I haven't heard anyone else describe it as the
last gasp."

In Iraq, many politicians and victims blame the
violence in Baghdad and Mosul on sectarian tensions, not on al Qaida in
Iraq. In Mosul Friday, witnesses said that tensions between the mostly
Shiite police force and the majority Sunni population have increased
recently.

"The people who are behind the violence are the people
who are betting on the failure of the political process. And some
political parties, whether they are aware or not, are being used. I
believe regional agendas are at play here," said Seleem Abdullah, of
the Iraqi Islamic Party, the largest Sunni bloc.

Whether the
violence marks a struggling al Qaida in Iraq or the early signs of what
could happen when U.S. forces leave will shape not only the U.S.
withdrawal plans but also the Obama administration's push to send more
troops to Afghanistan. Under an agreement between the U.S. and Iraq,
all U.S. troops must be out of Iraqi cities by the end of June.

"It
is inevitable that violence will go up as U.S. troops leave. Is it
enough to destabilize the state? We don't know yet," said David
Kilcullen, an Australian counterinsurgency expert who's advised Army
Gen. David Petraeus, the former top U.S. commander in Iraq. "The danger
is not that Iraq will fall back quickly. It's that will fall back
slowly as we were sending more troops to Afghanistan."

Few U.S.
officials, the senior administration official added, think the
U.S.-backed, Shiite-Muslim-led government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri
al Maliki is capable of containing the violence. More likely, the
official said, the Iraqi army and security forces will let the Kurds
pummel Sunni Arabs in the north and continue to back fellow Shiites
against the Sunnis in Baghdad, Diyala province and elsewhere.

Whatever
strength al Qaida in Iraq may have, most officials agree that events in
Iraq have drawn the ire of the Sunnis. Most notably, despite promises,
the Iraqi government hasn't paid thousands of Sunnis, who drew a salary
from the U.S. military to secure their neighborhoods.

While the
level of violence has fallen, the underlying issues have yet to be
resolved, including those that drive the violence. How will the Kurds
and Arabs resolve tensions and land disputes in the north? How will oil
revenues be distributed? And how decentralized should the Iraqi
government be?

This all comes as Maliki is beginning his
re-election bid, running on a rule-of-law platform. If Sunni groups are
able to destabilize the nation, that could turn voters toward an
alternative candidate in the December elections.

Indeed, members
of Maliki's main rival Shiite party Friday blamed the new violence on
failing Iraqi security forces, not on Sunni al Qaida in Iraq.

"There
are many factors behind the rise in violence incidents, the most
important of which is the slackness of the security apparatus and its
complacency after the successes it achieved. This slackness has been
taken advantage of by those who wish to destabilize the country and
benefit from the chaos," said Jalaluddin al Sagheer, a Shiite
politician.

So far, the Obama administration has said it will
stick to the withdrawal agreement. Privately, some commanders and
national security advisers say that the U.S. has done all it can do,
and that the Iraqis want the Americans to leave.

If the violence
continues, the administration may have to reconsider the pace of the
drawdown in Iraq and the plans for Afghanistan. That could alter
Obama's 19-month Iraq withdrawal.

"I think the Obama administration is learning that it may need to care more about Iraq," Kilcullen said.

McClatchy special correspondent Sahar Issa contributed to this article from Baghdad.

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