Why We Don't Have Enough Troops in Iraq

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Soldiers with the 172nd Stryker Brigade 4/23 Tomahawk battalion clearing a neighborhood with Iraqi army and police units as part of Operation Together Forward on the streets of Ur, a neighborhood in northeastern Baghdad.

The scenes almost seem lifted from a different war: On a scorching afternoon in Ur, a neighborhood in northeast Baghdad, members of the Army's 172nd Stryker Brigade are on a charm offensive. The soldiers spent 12 months in the restive city of Mosul, before having their tour in Iraq extended to help in the U.S.'s campaign to pacify Baghdad. The unit's experience shows. They are alert but relaxed, carrying themselves with a gentle posture, weapons down, waving to the locals, talking with them. Kids hold hands with the Americans; an Iraqi mother hands a soldier her baby to hold. Locals invite U.S. officers in to sit and have glasses upon glasses of tea, orange Fanta, Pepsi and Arabic coffee. They don't go into a house without a few Iraqi soldiers who can better gauge if someone looks suspicious. Walking out of one Iraqi home, Lieut. Colonel John Norris, commander of the Stryker 4th Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment Tomahawks, enjoys a moment of guarded optimism. "Days like this you think, wow, they can really do it. If they can just stop the killing."

With the Stryker Brigade

AUDIO: TIME's Brian Bennett on the troops in Iraq

It's the glimmers of hope that make the realities in Iraq so heartbreaking. Residents of Ur say that with the Strykers around, sectarian murders have all but disappeared. Neighbors emerge from their homes to chat and allow their sons and daughters to play in the street. But the Iraqis and Americans know that such sanity won't last. Though 12,000 U.S. and Iraqi troops have moved to the capital to try to defuse sectarian violence, the level of killing across the city remains as high as ever. That's because the U.S. doesn't have enough troops to maintain the peace in the areas they've secured, instead relying on Iraqi units who have yet to prove they can impose order. In Ghazaliyah, a west Baghdad neighborhood the 172nd Strykers cleared weeks earlier, violence has already gone back up to previous levels. For all the progress made in Ur, the troops know the cycle is bound to repeat itself there too. "We leave," says Sergeant First Class Joshua Brown, as his Stryker pulls out of Ur city, "and it turns into f------ Somalia."

Despite isolated success stories, there is a palpable sense that things are getting worse in Iraq. A U.N. report says a record 6,600 Iraqis were killed in the past two months amid the lawlessness. Major General William Caldwell told reporters last week that six weeks into the battle for Baghdad there was an upward "spike in execution-style murders" in the city. The two major challenges facing the U.S. — quelling Sunni-Shi'ite conflict in Baghdad while subduing the jihadist insurgency in western Iraq — have raised questions among officers in Iraq about whether the U.S. has enough troops to keep the country from falling apart, let alone achieve anything resembling stability. That perception was bolstered this month by a classified Marine intelligence report that estimated the U.S. needed an additional 10,000 to 15,000 troops to defeat al-Qaeda-led rebels in Anbar province. In an acknowledgement of the problem, General John Abizaid last week reversed hints of a drawdown by the end of the year, saying U.S. troops will stay around the current 140,000 in Iraq until next spring.

Will that be enough?

The experience of sending the Strykers to Baghdad indicates that more troops could help in the short term. A growing number of analysts in Washington, including some conservative supporters of the Bush Administration, have called for a substantial increase in U.S. troop levels to stop Iraq's slide into civil war. But expanding the total U.S. force in Iraq remains unlikely — military officials interviewed by TIME say that the U.S. command remains reluctant to make a major manpower boost. To some, that reluctance is indicative of the leadership's broader failure to heed complaints about U.S. troop strength that have been voiced by officers in Iraq for more then three years. "I know I could have used more forces," says a Lieut. Colonel who served in Iraq. "We could have held more territory... I asked, but I'm not sure the request ever made it."

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