Would a Troop Surge in Iraq Work?

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U.S. Marines sweep a rural target during Operation Dagger in June, 2005 in Anbar Province near Fallujah.

The Baghdad district of Sanak is exactly the kind of place Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli and other advocates of more "soft power" in Iraq like to see. Dozens of shops in the commercial area open each day offering everything from farming equipment to plumbing supplies. The daily bustle of trade in business wares on the streets of Sanak suggests the promise of jobs to be had in Iraq, a sense Chiarelli and others say is vital to slowing the bloodshed here.

"If I could drive down unemployment in this country just to something that was reasonable, or if other people could help me drive unemployment down here, I promise you, our casualty figures would not be as high," says Chiarelli, the ground commander of U.S. forces in Iraq for the past year. "Nor would the level of violence be as high as it is today." Chiarelli's call for a new Iraq strategy with an emphasis on jobs and reconstruction, not more troops, came Dec. 12 as he spoke to reporters during an exit interview before handing over his command to Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno.

Two days later in Sanak, however, a horde of gunmen wearing Iraqi military uniforms appeared suddenly, sealed off whole blocks and kidnapped an estimated 70 people, bringing business to a halt.

No employment program can stop what happened that day in Sanak. The kidnappers appeared to fit the profile of Baghdad's most notorious moonlighters, officers in Iraqi security forces who draw a government paycheck while working with sectarian militias on the side. Still, the presence of U.S. forces might have deterred the kidnappers. Chiarelli has been one of the most prominent military figures to downplay the potential gains of increasing the number of U.S. troops in Iraq. But he acknowledges the effect of troops on the ground. "Those things that are purely sectarian, normally our mere presence, the mere presence of coalition forces, causes them to stop, at least as long as we're there," he says.

The White House has signaled its interest in plans that could add as many as 30,000 more troops to the country. About 17,000 troops are currently in Baghdad trying to rein in sectarian violence that seems to widen every day, despite a major push by U.S. forces starting in June to secure the capital. The opponents of a troop surge say the failure of this campaign to bring order to Baghdad shows that greater numbers of U.S. forces are unlikely to have an effect on the situation. To be sure, even a doubling of U.S. forces in Baghdad may not be enough to hold down violence in a vast city of roughly 7 million people where powerful militias bent on sectarian war are allowed to remain. But there are pockets of success that suggest greater efforts by U.S. forces may be able to stabilize quarters of the city that otherwise would become sectarian killing grounds.

With some help from Iraqi security forces, U.S. troops have managed to bring the level of violence down in parts of western and southern Baghdad, neighborhoods like Washash and Mekanik. In areas where U.S. troops control traffic through checkpoints and mount regular patrols, sectarian murders tend to drop. Would-be killers who fan out across the city from militia strongholds have a difficult time carrying out attacks amid car searches and street watches by U.S. troops. Perhaps the most visible example of this came in October, when U.S. forces threw up a temporary blockade around the Shi'a slum of Sadr City, home to the Mahdi Army militia blamed for much of the sectarian killings around Baghdad. During the days when the Sadr City cordon was in place, Baghdad saw noticeably fewer murders. The episode revealed two important things. First, U.S. forces can ratchet down the killings in Baghdad, at least for a time, with basic tactics like roadblocks and military policing. And second, as of now, the militias so eager to kill civilians are reluctant to confront American troops. The Mahdi Army didn't attack U.S. forces in earnest even when they massed at the gates of Sadr City, ready to plunge into the area in search of a kidnapped U.S. soldier who remains missing.

Sadr City had been Chiarelli's showcase of soft power. As commander of the 1st Cavalry, he had ordered "public works" like new sewage systems and improved water supplies to deal with ingrained grievances. That did nothing to stem the Mahdi Army's power. Now, though it can be seen as a place where increased U.S. troop presence can make a difference, the tense standoff between U.S forces and the Mahdi Army could easily erupt into open fighting and turn Baghdad into an urban battleground. Still, as a long as the uneasy prevailing peace remains, American troops exercise a broad measure of authority on the streets of Baghdad they claim.

It's different in Anbar province, where the presence of American troops on the streets of places like Ramadi actually prompts violence rather than heading it off. Insurgents and fighters from al-Qaeda in Iraq regularly strike U.S. forces in Anbar with small arms, massive roadside bombs and mortars that carry blasts comparable to heavy artillery. Militants come to the area from surrounding countries and elsewhere in Iraq specifically for a chance to confront U.S. troops, which is part of the reason the insurgency persists. It's a dilemma familiar to counterinsurgency strategists: much of the fighting in Ramadi and other places continues because of the American presence, not in spite of it. U.S. commanders tasked with clearing Ramadi, the latest insurgent hub in Anbar Province, aren't looking to assault the city with U.S. troops. They want local security forces instead to retake the city gradually. And in recent months a group of tribal leaders in Anbar Province has been working with U.S. forces in that effort, forming a coalition of sheiks who have sent hundreds of their followers to join the Ramadi police force as well as the Iraqi army.

The Ramadi strategy, which in essence replaces U.S. troops with Iraqis even as the fight unfolds, shows some early signs of success. Despite bursts of fighting in Ramadi almost daily, schools are opening, and Iraqi police are circulating on their own in neighborhoods that were previously no-go areas. The end game is far from certain in Ramadi and other violent towns in Anbar Province like Hit and Haditha. But the plan already in motion there now means any additional combat troops President Bush may order to Iraq would be better put to use in Baghdad, which everyone agrees must be stabilized for anything else to work in Iraq.

Odierno, the new ground commander in Iraq, is thought to favor a U.S. troop surge. He comes to the job with a reputation as an aggressive commander, even sounding a bit like Bush in advocating a stay-the-course approach when he addressed a panel of lawmakers and military experts in Washington last March. Odierno spoke in hypothetical terms about the need to integrate seamlessly reserve units and active-duty forces to sustain an emergency military surge, should one ever be needed.

"We have to have the right type of forces for us to sustain potentially long-term capabilities against an enemy," says Odierno, whose son lost an arm while on combat duty in Baghdad. "We've heard talk here about the long war and that we have enemies out there that are against the way of life of the United States [and] will continue to attack the way of life of the United States. And this is not something that's going to go on for one, two, three more years — but will go on potentially for five, 10, 15, 20 years. We have to be prepared for that."