Only days after President Bush announced a new US strategy for Iraq, a potentially pivotal battle for Baghdad already may have begun.
Sectarian violence in Iraq's capital has spiked in recent days, even as the first US and Iraqi government military reinforcements have deployed into the embattled city.
The car bombs that racked Baghdad Monday may not have been a response to the presence of new troops, strictly speaking. But if nothing else, they emphasize the chaos into which the city has sunk, and the prospect that the new US and Iraqi troops may be at just the beginning of what promises to be a difficult and protracted counterinsurgency campaign.
"The way ahead will be neither quick nor easy," said the incoming US commander for Iraq, Army Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, at his Senate confirmation hearing Tuesday.
Two bombs struck separate Shiite targets Tuesday, killing five – a day after a double car bomb killed 88 in the most deadly such attack in Baghdad in two months.
For US troops, recent days similarly have been difficult. Twenty-eight died over the weekend, including 12 in a helicopter apparently shot down northeast of Baghdad, raising the war's US military toll to 3,064, according to an Associated Press count.
A few deadly events can distort the casualty trend lines in Iraq, notes Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow in defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. Thus it is easy to read too much into a difficult few days.
If anything, sectarian fighters in Baghdad soon may melt into the population, in an effort to wait out the coming surge in US and Iraqi government troops.
"My hunch is we are likely to see an artificial decrease in casualties soon," said Mr. Biddle.
That said, the White House and US military leadership are walking a number of difficult tightropes in regard to Iraq, Biddle adds. They are insisting they will stay the course, while hinting to the US public that the course will not be too long. They are warning the Iraqi government that if it does not move against Shiite death squads, the US may pull out – while at the same time insisting that US units will stay until the military job is done.
"The administration believes that a few months of calm [in Baghdad] will create momentum for reconciliation," says Biddle. "I'm concerned that nothing fundamental will have changed."
At his confirmation hearing Tuesday, General Petraeus was bluntly critical about the current situation in Iraq –perhaps more so than any Bush administration or military witness, ever.
He admitted that the current situation is dire. "Many Iraqis in Baghdad today confront life-or-death, stay-or-leave decisions on a daily basis, just to feed their children," he said.
Three of four promised battalions of Iraqi troops have already deployed into Baghdad, said Petraeus. All have more than 80 percent of their troops present.
On the US side, the 82nd Airborne Division's 2nd Brigade Combat team has also moved into Baghdad as part of the first of wave of US reinforcements. The paratroopers had been based in Kuwait as an Army ready reserve for the region.
The Iraqi and US forces will now provide a "persistent presence" in violence-racked Baghdad neighborhoods, said Petraeus, by living in 20 to 30 police stations or other fortified forward posts.
Setting this up won't be a quick operation. "It will take time for the additional forces to flow into Baghdad, and time for them to gain an understanding of the areas in which they will operate," said the new Iraq commander.
And the US command is fully aware that time may not be on their side, in this case. "My concern is that [the] timeline that we see needed is not the same timeline that the country is prepared to provide us," said Marine Commandant Gen. James Conway Tuesday at a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee.
Petraeus is not beloved by everyone in the US military. Some grumble that he is fond of press attention, among other things. At one point in his hearing, he did offhandedly remark about a conversation he had had with former NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw.
For the short term, however, the prospect of Petraeus as the new Iraq commander appeared to hearten the Senate Armed Services Committee, at the least. Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts, for instance, quickly announced that he intended to vote for Petraeus's confirmation despite reservations about President Bush's policies.
Unsurprisingly, the questions of each key lawmaker said as much about them as they did about the general before them. Thus the panel chairman, Sen. Carl Levin (D) of Michigan, pressed Petraeus as to whether he believed the Iraqis would live up to their commitments. Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, a longtime proponent of a surge in US forces, asked whether the planned increase would be enough, and whether US forces now could withstand the strain of added deployments.
"I am keenly aware of the strain" on US troops, said Petraeus.