Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Pentagon Admits Iraq Occupation Is Failing; Resistance Keeps Capital in the Dark

December 19, 2006

Attacks in Iraq at Record High, Pentagon Says

New York Times

WASHINGTON, Dec. 18 — 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.

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.

December 19, 2006

Iraq Insurgents Starve Capital of Electricity

New York Times

BAGHDAD, Dec. 18 — Over the past six months, Baghdad has been all but isolated electrically, Iraqi officials say, as insurgents have effectively won their battle to bring down critical high-voltage lines and cut off the capital from the major power plants to the north, south and west.

The battle has been waged in the remotest parts of the open desert, where the great towers that support thousands of miles of exposed lines are frequently felled with explosive charges in increasingly determined and sophisticated attacks, generally at night. Crews that arrive to repair the damage are often attacked and sometimes killed, ensuring that the government falls further and further behind as it attempts to repair the lines.

And in a measure of the deep disunity and dysfunction of this nation, when the repair crews and security forces are slow to respond, skilled looters often arrive with heavy trucks that pull down more of the towers to steal as much of the valuable aluminum conducting material in the lines as possible. The aluminum is melted into ingots and sold.

What amounts to an electrical siege of Baghdad is reflected in constant power failures and disastrously poor service in the capital, with severe consequences for security, governance, health care and the mood of an already weary and angry populace.

“Now Baghdad is almost isolated,” Karim Wahid, the Iraqi electricity minister, said in an interview last week. “We almost don’t have any power coming from outside.”

That leaves Baghdad increasingly dependent on a few aging power plants within or near the city’s borders.

Mr. Wahid views the situation as dire, while Western officials in Baghdad are generally more optimistic.

Mr. Wahid said that last week, seven of the nine lines supplying power directly to Baghdad were down, and that just a trickle of electricity was flowing through the two others. Western officials agreed that most of the lines were down, but gave somewhat higher estimates on the electricity that was still flowing.

“There’s quite a few that are down, and that does limit our ability to import power into Baghdad,” said a senior Western official with knowledge of the Iraqi grid. “The goal and the objective is to get them up as quickly as we can.”

Mr. Wahid said he has appealed both to American and Iraqi security forces for help in protecting the lines, but has had little response; Electricity Ministry officials said they could think of no case in which saboteurs had been caught. Payments made to local tribes in exchange for security have been ineffective, electricity officials said.

Neither the Defense Ministry nor the American military responded to requests for comment on the security of the lines.

In response to the crisis, Mr. Wahid has formulated a national emergency master plan that in its first stage involves bringing some 100 diesel-powered generators directly into Baghdad neighborhoods by next summer. That would be followed by the construction of a spate of new power plants in Baghdad and major work on existing ones.

All together, Mr. Wahid estimates, the program would cost $27 billion over 10 years, although some electricity experts knowledgeable about the plan say that even under optimistic assumptions, those enormous expenditures would not bring electrical supplies in line with demand before 2009.

“I don’t know how the people in Iraq are going to accept that reality,” said Ghazwan al-Mukhtar, an Iraqi electrical engineer who recently left the country because of the security situation, “that after five years, six years, they are still suffering from a lack of electricity.”

The reason that the attacks on the high-voltage electrical lines, known as 400-kilovolt lines, have been especially devastating is that they serve as the arterial roads of the national grid, the gargantuan electrical circuit that was designed to carry power from the energy-rich north and south to the great population center in Baghdad.

Throughout the country, there are perhaps 15 particularly critical 400-kilovolt lines, carried by their unmistakable 150-foot towers. The entire network runs for 2,500 miles, often passing through uninhabited desert, said Fouad Monsour Abbo, the assistant director for transmission in the Electricity Ministry.

Statistics maintained by the ministry over this year chronicle the dissolution of sections of the grid and the gradual isolation of Baghdad.

In March, at most one or two of the lines were severed at any one time, but by the summer the typical number had risen to six or seven and had soared to a peak of 12 by early fall. Electricity officials say the decisive moment came July 6, when saboteurs mounted coordinated attacks across the country, gaining a lead in the battle that the government has not been able to reverse.

“They targeted all the lines at the same time, and they all came down,” Mr. Abbo said.

Mr. Abbo said a typical strategy was to set off explosives at the four support points of a single tower, which would then pull down two or three more towers as it toppled. As repair crews moved in hours or days later, another tower farther up the line might be struck, and then another, in a race the government had little chance of winning.

On Sunday, Mr. Abbo recited the most recent measures of the devastation. That day, 40 towers were down on a line running to Baghdad from one of the nation’s largest power plants in Baiji, in the insurgent-ridden north, and 42 more towers were down on a line connecting Baiji to a huge power plant in Kirkuk.

Towers were also down on two lines that pass through the “triangle of death” to connect Baghdad with a power plant to the south in Musayyib, and on four other lines in the Baghdad area or its environs. And the city was entirely cut off from the huge hydroelectric dam at Haditha, to the west in Anbar Province, the homeland of the Sunni insurgency.

Even the destruction of one tower generally shuts down a line.

“All the transfer lines are in hot spots and are targeted by terrorist attacks,” said Saadi Mehdi Ali, who as the Electricity Ministry’s inspector general follows the issue closely.

The attacks have an immediate impact on the lives of ordinary Iraqis. Last week even the official United States State Department figures, which many Iraqis contend lean toward the optimistic side, said there was an average of 6.6 hours of electricity per day in Baghdad and 8.9 hours nationwide.

Before the war, Baghdad had 16 to 24 hours of power and the rest of Iraq 4 to 8 hours, according to the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, an independent United States federal office. While the redistribution has always been cast by American officials as a deliberate reversal of Saddam Hussein-era inequities, the statistics revealing the isolation of Baghdad show that the government no longer has much choice about the amount of power to direct to the city.

Also included in Mr. Wahid’s master plan is a centralized, automated control system to move that electricity around what is now an antiquated grid run by engineers who manually throw switches at power stations and substations scattered around the country. The control system would also help stabilize a grid that is increasingly unstable and prone to large-scale blackouts — and make deliberate manipulation of the electricity supply harder.

Iraqi and American officials say another reason that the amount of electricity in Baghdad is down is that power-rich areas like southern Iraq are finding ways to work their switches to keep more of the electricity they generate for themselves.

“That’s a fact of life,” said a senior Western official who would not be quoted by name. But with the plans for a control system, the official said, “it is becoming less and less of an issue.”

The combination of factors draining the city of electricity is reflected in a separate set of figures that gauge the electricity on the so-called “Baghdad ring” of power lines. Those figures reached a peak of 1300 megawatts in early June and had dropped to 800 megawatts by November. It rebounded slightly to 890 megawatts this month. In contrast, current demand within the Baghdad ring is estimated at 2000 megawatts and growing.

As Baghdad relies increasingly on aging local plants to satisfy the bulk of its demand, Iraqi officials say that poor decisions in the American-financed reconstruction program have made those plants much less effective than they could be.

For example, the Qudis plant, just north of Baghdad, was outfitted with turbine generators modeled on 747 airplane engines that work efficiently only when using fuel of higher quality than the Iraqis can provide with any regularity, a fact that has led to damaging breakdowns.

But there have also been important successes, including the installation of two enormous new turbines by the American contractor Bechtel at the Baghdad South power plant on the banks of the Tigris River. Without the approximately 200 megawatts generated by the turbines, which were transported under heavy security across the perilous Anbar desert to Baghdad in 2004, basic services in the city could be verging on desperate by now.

“It is a battle,” said Mr. Abbo of the Electricity Ministry. “But we still have hope.”

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