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Daily Column
US Papers Wed: Iraq's Security on a Knife Edge
Iraqi deaths up; Attacks on U.S. troops up; Sunni leader waits in Beirut cell
By CHRIS ALLBRITTON 04/02/2008 01:50 AM ET
More reports are coming in the aftermath of the Battle for Basra, and it's not looking good. Attacks on Iraqis and American forces are up, Iraqi civilian deaths are up, government forces can't fight and the U.S. and British troops were much more heavily involved in the fighting than previously thought. In short, security in Iraq is hanging on by a thread, and it's been that way for a while.

Over there
The Times's James Glanz reports that Iraqi deaths are once more on the rise, reaching their highest point since September 2007 in Baghdad and soaring nationwide. But that spike in fatalities is most likely related to last week's Battle for Basra. But that doesn't account for all of the increase, and it seems that the surge, after its initial success, reached a point of diminishing returns. The Iraqi security forces are stepping up their raids on what they consider renegade militia cells, which Glanz plainly thinks is a cover for going after the Mahdi Army. "The American military, as well as some senior Iraqi officials, have recently sought to characterize nearly all military operations in Iraq as actions against "criminals," and not specifically against the Mahdi Army."

Sudarsan Raghavan of the Post reports the flip side of the Times's story: that attacks on U.S. and Iraqi forces soared at the end of March. "Last week was clearly a bad week and shows the tenuous nature of security, which is something we've been stressing for some time now," Navy Rear Adm. Gregory J. Smith, the U.S. military's chief spokesman, wrote in an e-mail response to questions. "Security in Iraq is not irreversible, and any number of actors can affect the level of violence if and when they choose to." Well, duh. There was a massive battle going on across much of the south! Of course the Mahdi Army and other militias are going to fight back. What's interesting in this story -- and which is a bit buried -- is that the spike in attacks on U.S. forces shows how quickly the American military was drawn into essentially an intra-Shi'ite fight. According to preliminary data, the U.S. bore the brunt of attacks last week, not the Iraqi security forces, which were assaulting Basra. This suggests the U.S. was taking a lead role -- or at least perceived to be -- in much of the fighting.

The Times's Erica Goode reports that April Fool's Day is pretty dark in Baghdad, with family members pranking others by saying loved ones had been killed. Then, when the tears start flowing, "just kidding!" Jesus.

Robert F. Worth has an extraordinary story for the Times. Mudher al-Kharbit, an Iraqi defector who worked with the CIA for years to topple Saddam Hussein, now sits in a Beirut prison cell, a victim of a tortured circumstance that has seen him fight, then shelter, Saddam. Once the war started, tribal hospitality required that he shelter Iraq's fleeing president, and for the first time reveals that Saddam was indeed at his villa in April 2003 when the Americans bombed it. Saddam and his half-brother escaped, but the bombing killed 22 people, including Kharbit's older brother and women and children. It stoked fury among the Iraqis and may have kicked off the insurgency. In his years before the war working with the Americans, Kharbit schemed against the dictator, and spent years in hiding. In the weeks and months that followed, he urged the United States to work with the Sunni tribes of Anbar. Had the effort succeeded, Worth writes, Kharbit might have become ruler of Iraq. But that didn't happen and he fled the country. He didn't work with the Sunni insurgency, he says, but the Shi'ite government in Baghdad labeled him a terrorist, so he got picked up in Lebanon and now sits in a cell. The United Nations has called his arrest warrant baseless, but the Lebanese don't know what to do with him, so there he sits. As the leader of one of the most important tribes in Iraq, many in Iraq think he could make a big difference with the Awakening movement. "The Kharbit family was the early backbone of U.S. policy on tribes," said a former C.I.A. officer who had spent time in Iraq. "It's a bit odd that no one in the U.S. government really cares about him."

Charles Levinson of USA Today reports that the fighting between Mahdi Army fighters and Iraqi security forces was a test of loyalty for the government troops -- one they largely failed. "The week of violence exposed troubling signs that the country's security forces have much work before they can take over for U.S. troops. Militias and their followers remain entrenched within the government forces, and units sympathetic to al-Sadr, such as (Ismail) Shnawa's, refused to fight." Levinson has some added details on the involvement of the British in Basra. They fired artillery shells, evacuated and treated Iraqi wounded, refueled Iraqi aircraft and provided manpower to ferry supplies. In Baghdad, U.S. resupplied Iraqi soldiers with water and ammunition when the Iraqi supply chain broke down. The problem is that Iraq's military is still centered on the commanders. If one in a unit refused to fight, the whole unit followed him. In one case, two out of seven Iraqi battalions -- about 600 men -- failed to follow orders when it came time to fight. The Americans soon stopped asking the Iraqis to take on difficult tasks and instead let them man checkpoints. Talk about the soft bigotry of low expectations. "No one wanted to die fighting the Mahdi Army," Shnawa said. "When we joined they told us we'd be fighting al-Qaeda. They never said anything about the Mahdi Army."

John F. Burns of the Times reports from London that Britain is putting its spring drawdown on hold given the violence of last week. The defense secretary, Desmond Browne, also gave details on Britain's involvement in the fighting. It matches what USA Today reported (above). The order to involve ground troops to go help Iraqis was ordered "in extremis," suggesting the deployment was a last-ditch effort to save the Iraqis. More and more reports are coming in that despite Iraqi commanders' confidence on the even of battles, the troops are "fragile" and show that U.S. and British support is going to be needed for a long, long, long time.

Military matters
Ann Scott Tyson of the Post reports that the surge has put "unsustainable" stress on the U.S. ground forces and their readiness to fight other conflicts is at the lowest level in years. "When the five-brigade surge went in ... that took all the stroke out of the shock absorbers for the United States Army," said Gen. Richard A. Cody, the Army's vice chief of staff, as he testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee's readiness panel. Even if five brigades are pulled out of Iraq by July, as planned, it would still take some time before the Army can return to 12-month tours for soldiers, he said. Cody said that the Army no longer has fully ready combat brigades on standby if a conflict occurs. He said the nation needs an airborne brigade, a heavy brigade and a Stryker brigade ready for "full-spectrum operations," he added, "and we don't have that today."

Eric Lipton of the Times reports that computer chips sold to a United Arab Emirates trading company have shown up in detonators for roadside bombs in Iraq. The charge is that the trader is reselling the chips to Iran, which is then supplying the bombs in Iraq. This is part of the reason for some suspicion toward the U.A.E. in Washington that the emirates aren't preventing U.S. technology from falling into the wrong hands. Administration officials said aircraft parts, specialized metals and gas detectors that have a potential military use had also moved through Dubai, one of the emirates, to Iran, Syria or Pakistan. This is a major story, and will get wide play in the region.

Gregg Zoroya of USA Today reports that soldiers in far-off postings lack ready access to mental health counselors.


New York Times
David M. Halbfinger reports on the tough marketing choices needed to sell war films to a public that seems uninterested.

Lt. Col. John A. Nagl of the U.S. Army calls for 20,000 military advisors to train local forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. He says the current structure won't work -- maybe that's why Iraqi security forces got their butts kicked? -- and the American people need to be patient.

Washington Post
Philip Kennicott muses about documentaries on the Iraq war and why filmmakers keep at it, even though not many people seem to care.'s also not too daring to predict this: Neither film will, in any directly measurable way, satisfy the craving for greater accountability that many in their largely antiwar audience so passionately desire. And this basic fact will become part of the way the films are assessed. It is a phenomenon that needs defining: The Iraq war is being processed almost out of sight, in a cinematic unconscious that may not influence mainstream thinking about the war for years.

Christian Science Monitor and Wall Street Journal
No original Iraq coverage today.


Wounded Warrior Project