WASHINGTON - The surge of additional U.S. troops in Iraq has failed to curtail violence against Iraqi civilians, an independent government agency reported Tuesday.
Citing data from the Pentagon and other U.S. agencies, the Government Accountability Office found that daily attacks against civilians in Iraq have remained "about the same" since February, when the United States began sending nearly 30,000 additional troops to improve security in Iraq.
The GAO also found that the number of Iraqis fleeing violence in their neighborhoods is increasing, with as many as 100,000 Iraqis a month leaving their homes in search of safety.
The GAO's conclusions contradict repeated assertions by the White House and the Pentagon in advance of the coming congressional debate on whether to stay the course in Iraq or to begin some withdrawal of U.S. troops.
Neither a July report from the White House nor a report last month from 16 U.S. intelligence agencies, however, provided any statistics to support their claims that the surge has improved security. The GAO report, in contrast, includes charts showing the number of attacks against Iraqi civilians, Iraqi security forces and U.S. troops. Only attacks against U.S. troops have declined in recent weeks.
In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Tuesday, U.S. comptroller general David S. Walker, who heads the GAO, said he couldn't vouch for charts that Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., said Army Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, had shown him during a recent congressional visit to Iraq. Coleman said those charts showed a decrease in violence.
"Let's just say that there are several different sources within the administration on violence, and those sources do not agree. So I don't know what Gen. Petraeus is giving you," Walker said.
When President Bush announced in January that he'd dispatch more troops, he said the goal was to cut sectarian violence so the government of Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki could work out political compromises on key issues among Iraq's rival religious and ethnic groups.
Supporters and opponents of the surge now agree on at least one thing: Maliki has been unable to bring about those agreements. So does the GAO. Its report found that of the 18 benchmarks Iraq's government set for itself, three have been met, four have been partially met and 11 haven't been met.
"Overall, key legislation has not been passed, violence remains high, and it is unclear whether the Iraqi government will spend $10 billion in reconstruction funds," the report said.
The GAO said it couldn't determine whether sectarian violence in Iraq is down "because measuring such violence requires understanding the perpetrator's intent, which may not be known."
But the report said it was possible to assess the overall daily number of attacks against civilians. A chart showed that those attacks have remained relatively constant throughout 2007, despite the additional U.S. troops. The GAO referred a request for precise numbers to the Defense Intelligence Agency.
Army Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, the No. 2 U.S. commander in Iraq, acknowledged the controversy over the numbers in comments to reporters in Baghdad on Tuesday. But he said that violent incidents in Iraq are at their lowest point in 15 months this week.
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"There's been some controversies about civilian casualties," Odierno said. "Ours still see it as below what it was. We think we're making progress."
The GAO said that the Pentagon disagreed with its conclusion that there was no discernable trend in sectarian violence and provided the agency with additional data. But the GAO said it wasn't persuaded and didn't change its conclusion.
The GAO said it did change its assessment of two benchmarks from "not met" in a draft report to "partially met" after it received additional information. Those were whether the Iraqi government had provided three trained and ready brigades to join in Baghdad security operations and whether it had ensured that there were no safe havens for outlaws, regardless of sectarian affiliation.
Walker said that Iraqi forces have made progress in providing some security in Baghdad, but that it's unclear whether they can sustain those gains alone.
"I think there's a serious question whether they on their own will be able to hold these neighborhoods for an extended period of time . . . absent direct U.S. troop involvement," Walker said. "That's probably the $64,000 question."
The report found that many Iraqi military units include fighters with strong sectarian and tribal loyalties, and therefore are unwilling to confront extremist militias.
Walker said it was important to determine not just whether Iraqi forces were ready to fight, but also whether they were "committed to a unified Iraq and committed to fight on that basis."
That kind of loyalty will be hard to achieve until Iraqi politicians reach political reconciliation, Walker said. Currently, he said, the Maliki government is "dysfunctional".
The GAO report also provided evidence to support some analysts' belief that U.S. combat deaths have declined in the past few months because some Iraqi groups have chosen not to face American troops on the battlefield.
U.S. officials had predicted that combat deaths would rise when the surge was at full strength and the U.S. began a series of military offensives. Instead, U.S. combat deaths declined from a high of 120 in May to 55 in August, according to the icasualties.com Web site.
Citing a June 2007 Pentagon document, the GAO report said that many fighters from the Mahdi Army militia of Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr left Baghdad as the number of U.S. and Iraqi troops there increased. However, it said, "they now engage in ethnic and sectarian violence in northern and central Iraq" and are battling another Shiite militia, the Badr Organization, for control of southern Iraq.
(Leila Fadel in Baghdad contributed.)
© 2007 McClatchy Newspapers