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May 8, 2008

Pressure to Cut Costs, Troops Strains 'Surge'

by Jim Lobe

Growing impatience in Congress over the enormous costs being racked up by the Iraq war, as well as the Pentagon's belief that it needs more troops in Afghanistan to fight insurgents there, is putting the vaunted success of the George W. Bush administration's "surge" strategy to the test.

Although the House of Representatives appears poised to approve an additional $163 billion Thursday for military operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan through the end of the year, most observers believe that Congress will impose unprecedented conditions on Iraq-related spending. This could include requirements that the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki pay substantially more in reconstruction and related costs than it has to date.

The argument that Baghdad must bear more of the burden gained momentum last week when the Pentagon's special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction reported that Iraq's oil revenue in 2008 should exceed $70 billion, twice as much as had been forecast just a few months before.

That report, which comes amid growing concern over the weak domestic economy, has fueled efforts by a bipartisan group of senators to halt virtually all U.S. funding for major reconstruction and infrastructure projects in Iraq.

Indeed, the Senate Armed Services Committee voted unanimously last week to approve a bill that would ban the Pentagon from funding any reconstruction or infrastructure project in Iraq that costs more than $2 million. Similar legislation is expected to be taken up by the House.

"This is the first significant bipartisan change in our policy toward Iraq," declared Republican Sen. Susan Collins, one of the sponsors of the legislation after last week's vote, while the committee chairman, Sen. Carl Levin said Iraq's failure to pay reconstruction costs was "unconscionable [and] inexcusable" given the windfall it has received from the stunning rise in world oil prices.

Another provision of the same bill would require Iraq's government to pay the salaries and training costs of the predominantly Sunni militias, or so-called sahwa or "Awakening" councils, on which the U.S. has been spending roughly $27 million a month.

Despite U.S. pressure, the Maliki government has strongly resisted integrating the vast majority of the estimated 90,000 members of these militias – most of which were previously part of the Sunni insurgency – into the army or police for fear that they will eventually turn their guns on the regime.

The result has been growing frustration on the part of the militias, frustration that reportedly was significantly enhanced last month after Maliki enlisted thousands of members of the Badr Organization into the government's security forces during fighting with Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army in Basra and Sadr City in Baghdad. The Badr Organization is the armed wing of the Shia Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC), the strongest party in the coalition.

Both the intra-Shia conflict between the Sadrists and the government and the growing anger of the sahwa militias – most recently dramatized by a series of strikes and public protests and by an increasing number of attacks on U.S. and Iraqi forces in Anbar province and other Sunni strongholds where the militias have kept the peace for most of the past year – have resulted in a sharp rise in both Iraqi and U.S. casualties over the past two months, threatening the security gains made by the surge.

The surge, which was initiated in February 2007, was aimed at pacifying both Anbar province and the capital by adding some 30,000 U.S. troops to the 140,000 already deployed to Iraq to stop and reverse the drift to sectarian civil war between Sunnis and the various Shia militias. Its strategic aim was to foster a climate of peace and stability that would encourage all factions to make the political compromises necessary for national reconciliation.

While the surge made substantial headway in achieving its tactical goals of improving security – with the critical help of the sahwa militias, which had mostly broken with al-Qaeda in Iraq and allied themselves with the U.S. even before the surge got underway – its strategic goal of political reconciliation has been far more elusive.

Moreover, the surge's tactical success has failed to translate into additional popular or congressional support for the war at home. As a result, the Bush administration, which promised months ago to withdraw the 30,000 surge troops by the end of July, is adhering to its pledge, leaving fewer troops to ensure that a new round of violence does not break out.

At the same time, the Pentagon leadership is pressing the White House to continue the drawdown from Iraq beyond July so that it can deploy the three brigades – between 10,000 and 12,000 troops – it says it needs to cope with the Taliban and their allies in Afghanistan. While Bush has announced that there will be at least a 45-day pause to assess the impact of the surge withdrawal after July, the pressure on him to resume the process – not only from the Pentagon, but from Republican candidates in the November elections – is expected to be intense.

Republican backing for the Armed Services Committee bill banning additional spending on major reconstruction projects and support for the sahwa militias is clearly seen by both the administration and the promoters of the surge as a worrisome portent, and not only for maintaining the relative – albeit fragile – peace that has prevailed for much of the past year.

One of the surge's architects, Frederick Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), said that legislation would "do catastrophic damage to our image in the world, particularly the Muslim world. … The argument that Iraq should use its oil revenues to pay the United States sounds like the ultimate proof that we invaded Iraq for mercenary reasons."

Ending U.S. funding for the sahwa militias, in particular, will pose a critical – and long overdue – test of the surge strategy, according to a number of observers, who see Maliki's failure to integrate them as a critical stumbling block to national reconciliation.

"If the Awakenings are not integrated into the national security forces, then there is little hope for political accommodation or for lasting security and the U.S. is effectively trapped," according to Marc Lynch, an expert at George Washington University whose blog, AbuAardvark.com, is widely read. "Since all other forms of persuasion seem to have failed, it's time to give Maliki an ultimatum. … If he gives in, then there may finally be some hope for political accommodation…."

"The downside is that if Maliki doesn't go along … then things may well get ugly. But all signs suggests that they will get ugly anyway – and better that they get ugly while the U.S. is at the highest troop levels it will ever have," Lynch wrote.

"If Maliki won't do this now, when U.S. troop levels are high and security is relatively better, with the shadow of a new president who likely will not continue to offer an open-ended commitment, then he never will … and everyone should know this."

(Inter Press Service)

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    Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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