It looks like jihadists have discovered the "fragile linchpin" in the U.S.'s strategy in Iraq: the Awakening councils. Solomon Moore and Richard A. Oppel Jr. of the Times report for the papers lead story that at least 100 prominent Sunni militiamen have been killed in the last month, mostly around Baghdad and Baqoubah. Since it started two years ago, the Awakening movement has grown to be an 80,000-man force, 80 percent of it Sunni. But the recent violence is raising the prospect of the groups' dispersal, with many rejoining the insurgency. American and Iraqi officials blame Al Qaeda in Iraq, and note the spike in attacks after a Dec. 29 audio recording from Osama bin Laden called the volunteers "traitors" and "infidels." The Mahdi Army and Badr Organization are carrying out some of the attacks out, though, according to both Sunni and Shi'ite officials. Iran may also have a hand in the bloodshed, American officials say, with its al Quds force directing the two Shi'ite militias. This has led Awakening members themselves to see the Shi'ite militias as the main threat, not al Qaeda. The killings are mounting as the groups are becoming more frustrated with the Shi'ite-dominated central government. It has yet to fulfill its promise to put 20 percent of the volunteers into the ministries of the Interior and Defense and give non-security jobs to the rest. Combined with the attacks, there is fear the Awakening movement could fall apart. This is a must-read.
Alissa J. Rubin of the Times handles the daily roundup. In Mosul, a building used to store ammunition by insurgents blew up in a crowded neighborhood, killing at least 14 people and wounding 134. The building was a bomb factory used by insurgents. As police approached it, it exploded. Mosul is apparently heating up again. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad accepted an invitation to visit Iraq, but no date has been set. It would be the first visit by an Iranian president since the Islamic Revolution in 1979. A suicide car bomber struck in Kirkuk, killing seven people and wounding 14. And in Baghdad, gunmen killed three Iraqi Army soldiers and wounded two civilians in a drive-by shooting. Three unidentified bodies were found in the capital.
The Washington Post's Joshua Partlow has the story of the Mosul explosion. Partlow does a nice job of putting Mosul and Nineveh province into the context of the overall violence in Iraq (it's still high up there) as well as placing it in the big Operation Iron Harvest that's still going on. Elsewhere, two academics were fatally shot, one in Baghdad and one in Mosul.
USA Today's Charles Levinson writes that Fallujah is no longer the dangerous city it once was, but it's still lacking in basic services. And the lack of water, power and jobs could send the city back into bloodshed, city officials warn. (Of course, they could just be trash-talking the situation to speed things up or get more money.) "The government in Baghdad always said they couldn't help because Fallujah was too dangerous and too filled with terrorists," says Hamed Ahmed, an influential tribal sheik. "Now Fallujah is more secure than Baghdad -- and still there is no help." Levinson does a good job describing the situation -- the city gets only four hours of electricity a day, little running water and no sewage treatment -- but he doesn't really get at the possibility of it really backsliding.
Political battles Michael Abramowitz of the Post reports that Democrats, including the presidential candidates, have attacked the White House's plans to forge a long-term security agreement with Iraq. They complain that President George W. Bush is trying to lock the next president into a lasting U.S. military presence there. Well, yes. Yes he is. The White House is trying to secure what amounts to a Status of Forces Agreement, which would govern the legal status of U.S. troops in Iraq. The larger agreement between the two governments, however, provides for "security assurances and commitments" to deter foreign aggression. That sounds like troops will be there, well, forever. Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., said Bush is trying "to bind the United States government and his successor to his failed policy."
IN OTHER COVERAGE
Walter Pincus reports that Reps. Alcee L. Hastings, D-Fla. and John D. Dingell, D-Mich., asked Bush to add $1.5 billion to his spending next year on the Iraq war to help pay for several Iraqi refugee programs.