The Latest Violence Shows Iraqis Aren't Up to the Job

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An Iraqi policeman inspects the scene following an explosion in Tal Afar, Iraq.

Damned if they do, damned if they don't: Last weekend's escalation in violence was a reminder of the predicament in which U.S. forces find themselves in Iraq. U.S.-led security operations have recently come in for heavy criticism by Iraqis, especially Shi'ites. But when the security situation deteriorates, many Iraqis blame the only credible military presence in the country — the U.S. military. Lt. Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, the commanding general of the Multinational Corps in Iraq, told TIME last week that it was unreasonable to expect the U.S. forces to win hearts and minds in Iraq, but that "it's all about winning their trust and confidence."

Even that goal can sometimes seem beyond reach. In the aftermath of the Thanksgiving Day suicide bombings in Sadr City, many residents were asking why the U.S. forces had failed to stop the bombers, generally believed to be Sunni jihadis. After all, American soldiers had recently been raiding the giant Baghdad slum, attacking Shi'ite militias that enjoy a great deal of popular support there. Inevitably, some Shi'ites put two and two together — and got 22: On Saturday a cleric representing Moqtada al-Sadr, who enjoys demigod status in Sadr City, accused the U.S. of ganging up with Sunni insurgents and jihadis against the Shi'ites.

On the other hand, some Sunnis were accusing the U.S. of siding with the Shi'ite-led government to allow, even encourage, the militias to run amok in the wake of the Sadr City bombings. Harith al-Dari, who heads the largest Sunni clerical group, declared: "The government and the occupation forces are preparing the suitable environments to the militias and killing gangs to attack our people."

The overheated rhetoric aside, this much is clear: The Sadr City bombings and their grim fallout again exposed the limitations of the joint U.S.-Iraqi Baghdad security plan, dubbed Operation Forward Together, that began last summer. The plan brought more than 7,200 additional U.S. troops into the Iraqi capital, but it has failed to slow the sectarian killings and kidnappings that are threatening to drag Iraq into a civil war. In the past two weeks alone, Baghdad has seen the most audacious kidnapping (150 men taken captive from a government office in broad daylight) and the deadliest bombing (more than 210 killed in Sadr City) since the fall of Saddam Hussein.

It is hard, now, to escape from the conclusion that Forward Together is a misnomer. But the main reason it's not going "forward" is that there's very little "together" about it — the Iraqi military is not keeping its end of the bargain. Although there are tens of thousands of Iraqi soldiers in the city (in addition to the tens of thousands of police), they have, with remarkable consistency, managed not to be where they are needed most. Despite the weekend-long curfew, supposedly enforced by the Iraqi forces, there seemed little by way of security forces activity restricting the movement of Shi'ite mobs seeking vengeance for the Sadr City bombings.

The Iraqi Army was conspicuously absent, for example, in the Hurriya neighborhood, where rampaging Shi'ite militias damaged Sunni mosques and allegedly immolated worshipers. In Hurriya and elsewhere, many Iraqis reported that the Iraqi soldiers either melted away when the militias arrived — or worse, stood by and watched as they attacked Sunnis. The Shi'ite-majority Iraqi police are frequently accused of joining in the killing of Sunnis.

Forward Together had been meant to demonstrate how Iraqi forces can take the lead in important security operations. Privately, many American commanders say the Iraqi forces are nowhere near ready to take responsibility for security. This seems beyond the grasp of policy makers in Washington, where some legislators continue to demand that more responsibility be handed over to the Iraqis, so U.S. troops can be withdrawn. Few in Baghdad harbor such fantasies. They know that it will be a long time before their forces are up to the job. Until then, they want the Americans around for protection — and to blame.