Iraq attacks raise questions about US withdrawal

Violence reduced over the summer, but attacks surged in Baghdad and Ninewa Province and some US bases since American troops withdrew from the cities.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Daily attacks in Baghdad and Iraq's Ninewa Province are increasing, according to the Pentagon. The spurt comes as experts worry that the Obama White House is neglecting the mission there, where 130,000 American troops still remain.

Baghdad and Ninewa Province averaged five to six attacks per day this past summer, compared with about four attacks per day in the spring, according to Pentagon spokesman Maj. Shawn Turner. These areas typically see some of the worst violence in Iraq.

Overall, violence in the country has fallen by 18 percent from the spring, he says.

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But Al Qaeda has attempted to increase its presence in the north, and commanders have long cited the Ninewa region as one of the most challenging. Baghdad, Iraq's capital and largest city, has been rocked by two major attacks in recent weeks after the Iraqi government took down concrete barriers and American troops pulled out of the cities June 30.

Insurgents there are still using vehicle-born improvised explosive devices and suicide attacks as their weapons of choice, says Turner.

Mission not over?

"Many areas in Iraq remain dangerous," acknowledged Lt. Gen. Charles Jacoby, the commander for day-to-day operations in Iraq, citing four recent American fatalities.

It's too soon to tell if an accelerated drawdown of US forces from Iraq could occur until after the elections in January, he said at a press briefing Thursday, adding, "It is important to remember that our mission is not complete."

Another US commander in Iraq, Maj. Gen. Richard Nash, said this week that while attacks were down in the southern military sector of Iraq – now about 1.3 per day – there's been an upswing in attacks at US bases since American forces withdrew from the cities.

President Obama's new focus on Afghanistan – which will probably soon include a request from the field commander for additional US troops – has led some analysts to renew the case for staying in Iraq. They say that if Mr. Obama takes his eyes off the ball in Iraq, he may squander hard-won success there.

Even though violence in Iraq is "not spiralling out of control," it's important for the White House to keep paying attention, adds Fred Kagan, a resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

Mr. Kagan, credited as one of the architects of the 2007 "surge" strategy in Iraq, believes Iraq is now "preoccupied" more with political development than with security. But to maintain the security, Obama will have to remain vigilant, he says. "The question is, are we going to see this through?"

Obama's Afghanistan shift

Iraq is still teetering between two poles, said Ken Pollack, director at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings at a meeting with reporters Wednesday. At one end, democratization and pluralism and at the other, "old politics and pressures" that could drag it back into civil war.

The US must play a greater role in Iraqi political development, he says, adding that he thinks Iraq would be amenable to the help.

But others warn that staying longer would only prolong Iraqi dependency on the US and delay self-sufficiency. Besides, troops and resources are needed in Afghanistan.

"I don't think you should forget about [Iraq]" says Lawrence Korb, senior fellow at the liberal Center for American Progress in Washington. "But if you said to me, 'I have a limited number of troops and should I put them in Iraq or Afghanistan?' then I would say Afghanistan."

Mr. Korb adds that he isn't sure Iraq does want the US to continue to play a role there.

Meanwhile, the American public is losing patience with the engagements overseas. Only 24 percent of Americans think Iraq is "very important," according to a recent poll by GfK Roper Public Affairs and Media, while an ABC News/Washington Post poll from July shows that 34 percent think the Iraq war was worth fighting.

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