As Iraq stalemate sets record, Pentagon concern for US troops grows

Iraq has been trying to form a government since elections in March – now a record for post-election futility. Pentagon officials are increasingly speaking up about the dangers of the situation.

A US soldier stands guard near women queuing for relief goods distributed by the US Army and Iraqi police in eastern Baghdad Monday. US troops in Iraq are performing noncombat missions.

Iraq officially broke the dubious world record Friday for going the longest stretch of time without a new government. As the US military warily eyed the approach of this particular milestone in the wake of the country’s parliamentary elections in March, top US commanders issued increasingly dire warnings this week about what the impasse portends for US troops on the ground.

The commander of US forces in Baghdad, Brig. Gen. Rob Baker, told reporters that he has seen an uptick in violence aimed at Iraqi and US troops, including rocket attacks coming from the infamous militia stronghold of Sadr City. He wondered aloud about the impact this violence might have on, for example, the inclination of local Iraqis to help out security forces by phoning in to a tip line used to track insurgent activity.

Top Pentagon leadership has weighed in as well. “I’m increasingly concerned about [Iraq’s] inability to stand up this government,” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen said Wednesday during a Monitor breakfast in Washington. “The politics there are, from my perspective, too slow."

“The longer that lasts, the more I and others worry about what does the future hold,” he added.

These warnings are not idle attempts to pressure the Iraqi government into resolution. The US military is well aware that there are outcomes worse than stalemate – officials have not forgotten the violence that erupted on the heels of 2005 parliamentary elections.

It was a time when the nation experienced “a dip into civil war,” says retired Col. Peter Mansoor, former executive officer for Gen. David Petraeus in Iraq and now a professor of military history at Ohio State University.

Past the 11th hour

As former Mahdi Army leader Moqtada al-Sadr announced Friday that he will be throwing his support behind embattled Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite coalition, Mansoor said the move could spell trouble for the still-tense relationship between Sunni and Shiite communities within the country.

Indeed, such a coalition could be worse than continued stalemate if it marginalizes Sunnis in the next government, says Mansoor. “Sunnis may decide that if they don’t get anything via the political process then it’s time to go back to war."

Mansoor adds he did not support the decision to remove US combat troops from the country this year, a result of his concern that “everyone would vie for power after we were gone, rather than under the umbrella of a US security blanket.”

But, though there is currently little that US troops can do, politically the United States can remain “honest brokers” of power within the country, says Mansoor. “The Iraqis have a way of taking things to the eleventh hour and beyond.”

For now, he adds, “They are playing very tough bare knuckle politics.”

And it is this sort of high pressure politics traditionally practiced by tribes vying for power that now makes America’s job particularly difficult, says Paul Hughes, an analyst at the US Institute of Peace who led the Iraq Study Group’s Military and Security Expert’s Working Group. “Insurgencies are all about legitimacy.”

The current spate of violence is precisely designed to de-legitimize power brokers like Mr. al-Maliki, he adds. “If the Iraqi government appears unable to do it, they lose legitimacy and people will climb up on the fence.”

That’s because the elections have high stakes. Their outcome will have an impact on a number of trigger points in the months to come, including who will control the lucrative oil fields around Kirkuk.

A more capable Iraqi Army

The good news, says Hughes, is that Iraqi soldiers and police are increasingly able to handle internal security threats.

On this point, the Pentagon agrees.

“The last time it took the Iraqis six months or more to form a government was back in 2005, and during that period the country basically descended into a lot of violence and chaos,” concedes pentagon spokesman Col. David Lapan. But this time “at least the parties are trying to work through an agreement.”

While there have been some high-profile attacks, the Pentagon is not reevaluating its decision to pull combat troops “at this point,” Lapan says, noting that violence in Iraq remains at “historically low” post-invasion levels.

“Even though tens of thousands of US troops have now been withdrawn,” he adds, “the fact that the Iraqis are still able to handle security bodes well.”

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