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San Francisco Chronicle July 01, 2005

Why victory not a matter of troops
U.S. military seen as unlikely to create a lasting solution

By Anna Badkhen

Samarra, Iraq -- It's called "cordon and talk," and it epitomizes everything that works and does not work about the American military presence in Iraq.

When it happens on a street in Samarra, six U.S. soldiers get out of their armored vehicles, point their M-16 rifles to the ground, hand out toys and play soccer with Iraqi children.

The rest of the platoon goes about sterner business.

Six men watch the scene, guns at the ready. Four more climb onto the rooftops, warily eyeing passers-by, approaching cars -- any signs of threat. Two Bradley fighting vehicles guard each side of the street, their fearsome 50- caliber machine guns trained on anything and anyone that approaches.

But the effect of the cordon and the talk on this street in downtown Samarra, and on almost any street in Iraq, disappears virtually the moment the soldiers depart. Insurgents can walk the very same street as if the Americans have never been there. And an hour later, someone lobs mortars from the neighborhood at a U.S. base.

In his nationwide address on Tuesday, President Bush said there is no reason to increase U.S. troop levels in Iraq, where American military deaths in the 27-month-long war have exceeded 1,700 men and women, and anywhere between 12,000 and 22,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed.

Bush's critics in Congress and some commanders on the ground argue that the United States lacks sufficient troops to mount a successful counterinsurgency. Troops patrolling Iraq's border with Syria say they need more soldiers to stop foreign fighters from getting into Iraq. Soldiers in the northern city of Samarra embark on eight-hour highway patrols in 120-degree heat because there are not enough troops to shorten the shifts.

But many soldiers in Iraq, along with defense analysts in the United States, say it is not a question of enough "boots on the ground." As the "cordon and talk" approach indicates, U.S. forces, even if they were double the current number of 138,000, can be effective, but only with a specific piece of real estate and only for a particular moment in time.

The biggest obstacle, analysts say, is the nature of an elusive enemy that incessantly replenishes its ranks.

"Your enemy will continue to adapt his tactics to yours," said Lt. Col. Todd Wood, who commands the 2-7 Infantry Battalion, 1st Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division in and around the northern city of Tikrit.

Added to the soldiers' problems are tasks that are not typical for combat troops: training Iraqi forces, mediating between different branches of local and national governments and policing the streets.

"Many of them are ... not designed to do policing, they don't have the knowledge of handling sectarian differences, most of them do not speak Arabic, " said Anthony Cordesman, a military and Iraq expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "They're going to be seen as occupiers. They won't be people who can mediate and establish" a secure Iraq.

Cordesman and other analysts appear to agree with the Bush administration's contention that the Iraqis themselves ultimately will have to bear the burden of securing their country.

"What we could reasonably expect for American forces to do is to keep the country together until the Iraqis can keep it together themselves," said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a Washington-based defense think tank.

How long that will take, no one seems to know.

The ranks of Iraq's nascent security forces rise and fall from week to week as soldiers and police officers sign up and quit in the face of deadly guerrilla attacks. Two weeks ago, Pike said, Iraqi security forces numbered 167,000 people, down from 169,000 at the beginning of June. "Some combination of 'got blown up' and 'ran away,' " he said.

Many Iraqi troops still have only minimal training, and "only about 50, 000 (are) worth their mettle," said Michael O'Hanlon, who heads the Iraq Index project at the Brookings Institution.

For the foreseeable future, analysts say, U.S. forces are likely to bear the brunt of the fighting, despite stepped-up efforts to train Iraqis.

"The challenge is not simply to suppress the insurgency this summer. The challenge is to keep it suppressed next summer and maybe the summer after that, " Pike said.

The current size of the U.S. presence, he said, "seems to be a number that strikes a balance between keeping a lid on Iraq and being able to do so indefinitely."

Almost every day, U.S. forces launch assaults on insurgent strongholds. On Thursday, the military announced that U.S.-led forces detained more than a dozen suspected militants in a counterinsurgency sweep through the western Anbar province.

But U.S. commanders in Iraq say such victories are temporary because new insurgents take the place of those killed or arrested and because they fight by a different set of rules.

"His ability to disregard the laws of war, to cut heads off, to do some of the things that no state-sanctioned organized army would do at times of war, it allows him to go to that kind of extreme harm to combatants and noncombatants," Wood said.

Maj. Gen. Joseph Taluto, who commands the 42nd Infantry Division in Iraq, said insurgent leaders draw from a seemingly endless pool of Iraqis willing to kill Americans for between $150 for firing a mortar and $20,000 for blowing themselves up. Also, new foreign fighters come to Iraq every day. Last week, Gen. John Abizaid, the U.S. commander in the region, said that more foreign fighters have been entering the area since the January parliamentary elections and that the insurgency is as strong as it was six months ago.

"At this stage, it's not a matter of how many (troops) you have," said Rita Katz, director of the SITE Institute, an American nonprofit group that monitors Islamist Web sites and news operations. "We have deployed a lot of forces, and what we are getting is more and more insurgency groups. You can continue fighting them on a daily basis, but you cannot achieve anything other than a very temporary victory."

Other analysts warn that increasing the number of American troops also would not go over well with Iraqi civilians, who blame the U.S. presence for deficient infrastructure, disruptive combat patrols and the failure to protect them from suicide bombings that kill scores of Iraqis each week.

"Sending more troops can have an inciting effect, especially on Arab Sunnis," said Loren Thompson, a defense expert at the Lexington Institute, a public policy think tank.

Military commanders and analysts agree that the minority Sunni Arabs, who ruled Iraq for more than 1,000 years until the majority Shiite Arabs and ethnic Kurds won most of the seats in Iraq's parliament in January, provide the driving force and the bedrock of support for the insurgency.

The key to helping reduce the violence is ultimately not a military one, analysts agree.

"The solution is more political than military at this point," said O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution. "We do need to improve safety on the streets, to get the politics working to our advantage, but most of the solution is to get the Sunni Arabs aboard the political process."

Until then, said Thompson, American troops in Iraq and Americans at home must "have the patience to have casualties for many years to come."


Copyright 2005, San Francisco Chronicle