New Report Says Iraq Attacks Hit Record High
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The scene of a Baghdad car-bomb attack on December 18 (epa)
December 19, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- A new report released on December 18 by the U.S. Department of Defense painted a bleak picture of the security situation in Iraq, saying that attacks on U.S. and Iraqi targets have surged since August, and that Shi'ite militants are now the most significant threat in Baghdad and responsible for more civilian deaths and injuries than terrorist organizations such as Al-Qaeda..
The quarterly Pentagon report produced for the U.S. Congress is called "Measuring Stability and Security in Iraq." While that title is certainly not intended to be ironic, the report had very little in either stability or security to measure in Iraq between mid-August and mid-November.
In fact, the report presented in Washington said that attacks on U.S.-led forces, local security personnel, and civilians surged 22 percent, to the highest level since Iraq regained its sovereignty in June 2004. It also said that insurgents have achieved a "strategic success" by setting off a wave Sunni-Shi'ite sectarian violence that threatens Iraq's political institutions and borders on civil war.
New Pentagon Chief
With the United States seeking a new Iraq strategy, the report was published the same day a new defense secretary took over at the Pentagon.
"All of us want to find a way to bring America's sons and daughters home again," Robert Gates said at his swearing-in ceremony.
"But as the president has made clear, we simply cannot afford to fail in the Middle East," he continued. "Failure in Iraq at this juncture would be a calamity that would haunt our nation, impair our credibility and endanger Americans for decades to come."
Gates, who replaced the much-criticized Donald Rumsfeld, did not comment directly on the report during a news conference with President George W. Bush. But the new Pentagon chief is certain to be grappling with its findings in the weeks and months ahead.
Shi'ite Militias Now Most Dangerous
The report said the Imam Al-Mahdi Army of radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr "has replaced Al-Qaeda in Iraq as the most dangerous accelerant of potentially self-sustaining sectarian violence in Iraq."
It notes that the sectarian violence began spiraling out of control last February after an attack on Samarra's Golden Mosque and its Shi'ite shrine.
The rise in civilian casualties is directly linked to sectarian death squads, which the report says are aided by elements of the Iraqi security forces.
U.S. commanders say they continue to battle insurgents and Al-Qaeda militants. But they now identify sectarian violence as the biggest obstacle to restoring peace in Iraq.
Assistant Secretary of Defense Peter Rodman told reporters, "The sectarian violence is more significant than the insurgency because the sectarian violence really does shake the structure of a government whose unity is really a crucial factor."
Increase In Attacks
Gates told reporters that he wants to see the situation in Iraq for himself in order to have a clearer picture for future decisions.
"I intend to travel quite soon to Iraq and meet with our military leaders and other personnel there," he said. "I look forward to hearing their honest assessments of the situation on the ground and to having the benefit of their advice -- unvarnished and straight from the shoulder -- on how to proceed in the weeks and months ahead."
The report indicated that the average number of weekly attacks has approached 1,000 in the latest period, compared to about 800 per week from the May-to-August period. Statistics provided separately by the Pentagon said weekly attacks had averaged 959 in the latest period.
The report also said civilian casualties from attacks has risen a further 2 percent over the previous three months and by some 60 percent compared to earlier in the year.
The Pentagon says daily civilian casualties averaged 93. However, the 50-page document says the statistics are not precise because they are drawn from unchecked preliminary reports and that they should be used only to for comparisons with previous periods.
The report also said the Iraqi government's failure to end sectarian violence has eroded ordinary Iraqis' confidence in their future.