Monday, March 28, 2005

In the privacy of their E-ring offices, senior Pentagon officials have begun to entertain thoughts that were unimaginable a year ago: Iraq is turning the corner.

Military officials and analysts say the clearing out of enemy-infested Fallujah in November, the Jan. 30 elections and the increasing willingness of Iraqis to fight and die for a democratic country are contributing to the momentum.

“This is still a tough fight. We don’t want anyone to think that it is not,” said retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney, a military analyst who strongly supports Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. “But the momentum is in our direction.”

A military officer said big problems remain. Sunnis remain reluctant to join the Iraqi security forces. The Marines need more armored vehicles to fight in the Al Anbar province, one of the deadliest sectors. And the Baghdad command inside the green zone has been spotty on providing actionable intelligence.

A military source in Iraq declined to give raw number of attacks, but said, “There has been a decided downward trend in the number and lethality of attacks since the January 30 elections.”

A Pentagon official said the more that intelligence agencies analyze the insurgency, the clearer it becomes that a large part is criminal, not nationalistic.

Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein released tens of thousands of hardened criminals, including murderers, before the March 2003 invasion, meaning that as the ex-convicts are recaptured, insurgent leaders might have an increasingly smaller pool from which to recruit attackers.

“We have always realized there was a criminal element in the insurgency that wasn’t driven by devotion to Saddam. The numbers may be higher than we first estimated,” the official said.

An analysis by Reuters shows that U.S. combat deaths in March so far have averaged barely one per day, the lowest figure since February 2004. All told, 1,520 U.S. personnel have died in Iraq, including 1,164 killed in action.

“They’re clearly going after Iraqi security forces more,” Army Gen. George Casey, the top commander in Iraq, said earlier this month. “That’s kind of a steady thing. And the attacks against coalition actually have dropped off.”

The favorable trends do not mean that insurgents cannot pull off spectacularly deadly attacks on U.S. and Iraqi forces.

On Thursday, 11 Iraqi policemen were killed by a single suicide bomber, most likely a terrorist in the employ of Jordanian-born Abu Musab Zarqawi.

But Iraqis continue to sign up. After an even bloodier attack in January against Iraqis in line to apply for police jobs, a still-longer line formed the next day at the same spot, said a U.S. Army officer in Iraq.

And last week, merchants and residents on one of Baghdad’s main streets joined the fight by using their own guns to kill three terrorists, who were firing on passers-by.

Maj. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, who commands the Army’s 1st Cavalry Division and just returned from a year-plus tour overseeing Baghdad, is telling audiences that Osama bin Laden made a crucial mistake when he publicly encouraged Zarqawi.

It meant that the Saudi bin Laden was telling the Jordanian Zarqawi to slaughter Iraqis.

“Zarqawi is weaker,” Gen. McInerney said. “The Iraqi people defied him and went out and voted. He is spending more time killing Iraqis than he is Americans. He’s losing support among the Iraqi people.”

Lt. Col. James Hutton, Gen. Chiarelli’s spokesman, said another promising development is the proliferation of Iraqi newspapers and radio and TV stations that avoid the anti-U.S. propaganda viewed on Al Jazeera.

“The Iraqi media is really thirsty for facts out on the street,” said Col. Hutton, who made it a point to offer a weekly briefing to the Iraqi press that sometimes featured Gen. Chiarelli. “They want to expose corruption.”

Gen. Chiarelli is also touting the carrot and stick. Attacks in the Shi’ite Baghdad slum Sadr City fell to nearly zero after Army units crushed insurgents and then quickly put hundreds of dwellers to work building basic comforts of home: water, sewer and electric service.

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