In Baghdad, concerns about a violent year

Some Iraqis question the Bush 'surge' and the ability of Maliki to rein in militias.

Skepticism among Iraqis was readily apparent just hours after President Bush spelled out plans to bolster US and Iraqi forces to retake control of Baghdad.

"No hope, habibi [my dear]," says one Iraqi Shiite contacted in the capital. "I don't have any hope in whatever plan. To me, Iraq does not exist anymore."

This professional is trying to leave Iraq – along with the 3,000 Iraqis each day the UN estimates to be fleeing the violence. The exodus underscores the magnitude of the challenge, as the White House seeks to avoid leaving Iraq as a failed state.

"It is going from bad to worse," says the father-to-be. "It is [so] bad that [it] cannot be shown on TV or in pictures."

Mr. Bush said that the insurgent and sectarian violence – which left 60 Iraqis dead in Baghdad Wednesday morning – can be quelled by an infusion of 17,500 more US soldiers in the capital and 4,000 in Anbar Province. The Bush plan is to deploy one US battalion (400 to 600 US troops) in each of nine Baghdad districts, alongside substantially boosted Iraqi units.

But many Baghdadis say that Bush's prediction that the "year ahead [will be] bloody and violent" is likely to prove accurate, while his aim of "victory," in the face of a toll of more than 3,000 Iraqis killed each month, may remain unachievable.

The fulcrum of the plan is the Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, which has shown little inclination to take on Shiite militias and death squads – even encouraging sectarian divisions – since coming to power last spring. "This plan depends on the promises of the Iraqi government ... but I doubt [it] can take those steps," says Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish member of parliament.

And a bigger challenge looms: "What is going on in Baghdad today is a political problem, not a security problem," says Mr. Othman. If Iraq's Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish leaders "can't get together and agree with each other, introducing [more] US forces ... will not solve the problem."

Instead, say Iraqi critics, the plan could deepen the violence if US and Iraqi units take on Shiite militias and death squads and use a heavy and destructive hand.

"If they strike the Mahdi Army or other Shiite militias, there will be a lot of bloodshed ... and more and more people recruited to the Mahdi Army," says Othman, reached in London. "It is possible [a troop surge] will calm the situation for some time, maybe, but in the long run ... there will be more bloodshed, more killing, and things will get more complicated."

Washington has identified the Mahdi Army, a militia loyal to cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, as the biggest threat to security. But the government of Mr. Maliki, dependent on Mr. Sadr's political movement for support, has struggled to rein it in. US officials say Bush's plan follows personal commitments from Maliki to tackle militias and not to shield Sadr.

But many in Baghdad feel the violence has spun out of anyone's ability to control, with almost daily car bombings and a gruesome toll from death squads. Militant Sunni websites have described preparations for a "last battle" against Shiites to control Baghdad. The Hanin site, named for a battle during the era of the prophet Muhammad, wrote that 5,000 "fedayeen" – a militia of Hussein's most ardent followers – were ready to march from Baquba to Baghdad.

"Now we are going to increase the [US and Iraqi] forces, to increase the killing," laments one political scientist, a Sunni in Baghdad, who asked not to give his name. "One should ask: 'Is the problem the lack of American forces in Iraq?' The problem is greater than that. [T]hey have not even rebuilt what they destroyed in 2003."

"A country like the US can't do anything about the electricity of Iraq for four years now?" asks the professor. He adds that he is worried about the new troop presence.

"These battalions will have the right to shoot anybody, so I might get killed by the Americans and not the [Shiite] militias, because they misunderstand my moves or they called me back and I couldn't stop."

Wire services were used in this report.

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