Monday, January 08, 2007

War Could Last Years, Commander Says

BAGHDAD, Jan. 7 — The new American operational commander in Iraq said Sunday that even with the additional American troops likely to be deployed in Baghdad under President Bush’s new war strategy it might take another “two or three years” for American and Iraqi forces to gain the upper hand in the war.

The commander, Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, assumed day-to-day control of war operations last month in the first step of a makeover of the American military hierarchy here. In his first lengthy meeting with reporters, General Odierno, 52, struck a cautious note about American prospects, saying much will depend on whether commanders can show enough progress to stem eroding support in the United States for the war.

“I believe the American people, if they feel we are making progress, they will have the patience,” he said. But right now, he added, “I think the frustration is that they think we are not making progress.”

The general laid out a plan to make an impact in Baghdad with the additional troops. Several other military plans since the fall of Baghdad in 2003 have faltered. He said he wanted the new American units, working with three additional Iraqi combat brigades that Iraqi officials say will be deployed in the capital, to move back into the city’s toughest neighborhoods and show that they can “protect the people,” which he said coalition forces had previously failed to do.

General Odierno contrasted his approach with the last effort to secure Baghdad, effectively abandoned for lack of enough Iraqi troops last fall.

Then, American troops conducted house-to-house clearing operations before moving on to other neighborhoods, leaving the holding phase of the operation to Iraqi troops, who failed to control the areas and forced Americans to return. This time, the general said, American troops would remain in the cleared areas “24/7,” to stiffen Iraqi resolve and build confidence among residents that they would be treated evenhandedly.

Equally important, he said, coalition troops would move into both Shiite and Sunni neighborhoods. That, too, would break with the pattern set last fall, when American troops concentrated on known Sunni insurgent strongholds, especially Dora, in southwest Baghdad. This time, the general said, it was crucial the security plan be evenhanded. “We have to have a believable approach, of going after Sunni and Shia extremists,” he said.

Going into Shiite neighborhoods, particularly the sprawling working-class district of Sadr City, the base for the powerful Mahdi Army militia that has spawned Shiite death squads, will risk new strains in the relationship between American commanders and the Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki. Sunni leaders and, increasingly, American commanders here have accused Mr. Maliki of a strong Shiite bias. The criticism has intensified since the sectarian taunting by Shiite guards at the hanging nine days ago of Iraq’s ousted dictator, Saddam Hussein, an event personally planned by Mr. Maliki.

General Odierno said he envisaged making enough of a difference within three or four months of the new deployments to move to a second phase of the new plan, pulling American troops back to the periphery of Baghdad and leaving Iraqi forces to carry on the fight in the capital. He said he hoped to be able to do that by August or September, but with American troops prepared to move back into the capital rapidly if commanders conclude that the pullback was “a miscalculation.”

Meeting American reporters over lunch at a villa in the grounds of one of Mr. Hussein’s former palaces, General Odierno was careful not to divulge details of Mr. Bush’s new war plan, which the president is expected to make public in coming days, perhaps on Wednesday.

But much of the Bush plan has been leaked, including an influx of as many as 20,000 additional combat troops to Baghdad. Their arrival would be staged over coming months as American commanders watch to see whether the Iraqis, who made troop commitments before that they have not fulfilled, meet their part of the deal.

Sending up to five additional combat brigades, as suggested by administration officials in Washington who have discussed the plan with reporters, would push the American force in Iraq to at least 160,000 troops, close to the levels involved in the invasion nearly four years ago.

This so-called surge would constitute an abrupt about-face in American strategy, which has aimed in the past two years for a drawdown of American troops as Iraqi forces take on greater responsibility for the war.

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