- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Troop surges like the one announced by President Bush last night have been tried before in Iraq to stabilize the country for elections or dampen an upswing in violence — with mixed results.

The real test for the president’s new strategy is how this surge will differ from the past. For example, Mr. Bush ordered more forces into Iraq in July to stop sectarian violence in greater Baghdad. More than 15,000 U.S. soldiers joined 40,000 Iraqi forces in block-by-block sweeps.

But the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki never cracked down on Shi’ite militias, some loyal to a key political supporter, Sheik Muqtada al-Sadr. In the end, the Baghdad command acknowledged the offensive did not meet its objectives.

This time, Mr. Bush pledged that events will be different. The Iraqi army will go after Shi’ites, not just Sunnis. And the buildup will not have a time limit.

Baghdad will be divided into nine military sectors. Mr. al-Maliki will appoint a Baghdad military commander. From the 17,000 U.S. soldiers going to the capital, battalions will be joined with each Iraqi brigade, creating training and operations all in one, said a military source.

On Iran, part of the plan is already in place: a buildup of naval forces in the Persian Gulf. Plus, the source said, the U.S. will capture and hold Iranians helping the insurgents in the hope that this will provide some leverage against Iran’s aid to the insurgency.

“The surge will work as long as the Iraqis do their part, and our hands are untied to be tough where required,” said retired Army Lt. Col. Robert Maginnis, a military analyst. “Maliki must decide between working with the U.S. and his misplaced loyalties to al-Sadr. I believe the militia issue is the real center of gravity, not necessarily Baghdad. It happens that militia problems are worse in Baghdad.”

Mr. Bush has ordered surges before with mixed results. In May 2004, forces were declining to 115,000. But violence in Sunni-dominated Fallujah, and in Shi’ite towns around Najaf, forced the Pentagon to halt the drawdown and rebuild back to 138,000.

The results: A Marine-led force ultimately retook Fallujah that November. Army brigades clashed with Sheik al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army in a series of battles, reducing the militia to a few hundred.

But Sheik al-Sadr escaped death or arrest. He methodically rebuilt his army, with the help of Iran. Today, he controls thousands of fighters, some of whom break off into death squads and hunt down, torture and kill Sunnis. Hundreds of the bodies have been found strewn around Baghdad.

The Pentagon also surged troops three times for elections: a transition assembly; a constitution and a permanent parliament in December 2005. In each case, the surge was targeted to improve security in the run-up to balloting and then to create a safe atmosphere for voters. The strategy worked. All three elections were deemed successful by international observers. But they had limited impact on long-term violence.

The last buildup came this past summer. Mr. Bush again ordered an increase, from 127,000 to 150,000 to quell sectarian violence in Baghdad. The offensive did not work, and Republicans lost control of Congress in part because of larger number of voters turning against the war.

The president then began a far-reaching review, which ended last night with his announced decision to try a troop surge for the sixth time with new tactics.

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