U.S. officials say Iraq gripped by fear
By ANNE FLAHERTY, Associated Press
Iraq is a nation gripped by fear and struggling to meet security and political goals by September, U.S. officials said Thursday from Baghdad, dashing hopes in Congress that the country might turn a corner this summer. One general said not to expect a solid judgment on the U.S. troop buildup until November."If there is one word, I would use to sum up the atmosphere in Iraq — on the streets, in the countryside, in the neighborhoods and at the national level — that word would be 'fear,'" Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee."For Iraq to move forward at any level, that fear is going to have to be replaced with some level of trust and confidence and that is what the effort at the national level is about," he said by video link from the Iraqi capital.
In briefings to the news media as well as members of Congress, officials warned that making those strides could take more time than first thought. Most lawmakers have hoped Iraq would show more signs of stability this summer, long before the 2008 U.S. elections. For months, Republicans in particular have regarded September as pivotal. If substantial gains could not be found by then, they say President Bush would have to rethink his military strategy, which relies on 158,000 U.S. troops. "I'm not optimistic," Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said of the September assessment. She spoke after attending a classified briefing at the Pentagon by Crocker and Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq.
While bruised by the Iraq debate, Bush has thwarted repeated attempts by Democrats to force the withdrawal of U.S. troops. Despite wide opposition to the war, the administration appears confident that congressional Republicans will continue to stick by the White House to prevent a pullout.The administration also tries to minimize the importance of the September report, trying to make clear it is not the final judgment. Beyond that, the administration is saying U.S. forces will play a role in Iraq through the end of Bush's presidency, in January 2009.
Early Thursday morning, some 50 House members and 40 senators took buses to the Pentagon for separate question-and-answer sessions with Crocker and Petraeus.According to attendees, lawmakers were told that the political process was slow moving and that it would be very difficult for Iraq to meet its 18 reform goals in the next 45 days. A recent administration progress report found Iraq was making some progress in eight areas. In open testimony later Thursday, Crocker played down the importance of meeting major changes right away and said less ambitious goals, such as restoring electricity to a neighborhood, can be just as beneficial. Crocker also pointed toward political headway at the local level and said agreements there may inspire further cooperation among sects.
The much cited benchmarks "do not serve as reliable measures of everything that is important — Iraqi attitudes toward each other and their willingness to work toward political reconciliation," he said. Crocker also warned against a withdrawal of U.S. troops. He contended that such a move could increase sectarian attacks and create a "comfortable operating environment" for al-Qaida. On the military front, Petraeus told members of Congress in the private meeting that he had seen some "tactical momentum" since infusing Baghdad with additional U.S. soldiers.Petraeus' deputy in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, later told reporters he would need beyond September to tell if improvements represent long-term trends. "In order to do a good assessment I need at least until November," he said.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who attended the closed session at the Pentagon, said officials in Baghdad clearly do not see September as the turning point many do in Washington. Instead, she said, Crocker and Petraeus have described a process by which Iraq will slowly make enough progress to stand on its own. Feinstein, D-Calif., and other Democrats say the only way to speed up the process is to put more pressure on the Iraqi government — specifically by beginning to withdraw U.S. military support.
According to a senior defense official, Petraeus also was asked by members of Congress about challenges if he were told in the fall to begin withdrawing one U.S. brigade per month. Petraeus said he has to plan for such possibilities, taking into account how each move would impact other U.S. forces and the Iraqis. Crocker told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee he was not engaged in any contingency plans. "The short answer is, I'm not aware of any effort and my focus is implementation of 'plan A,'" he said.
Democrats and several Republicans, including Sens. Richard Lugar of Indiana and George Voinovich of Ohio, say they think Bush should start planning for the inevitable.
Coaching US troops on Iraqi culture
US officials say the military is transforming to meet the changing face of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. BBC Arabic's Roula Ayoubi reports on a new "cultural training" programme to improve US soldiers' skills in dealing with local people. "Assalamu alaykum, Ahlan wa sahlan, welcome." With these words, Iraqi sheikhs greet a group of marines in a narrow room at the beginning of a training session. The class is part of "Mojave Viper", a new pre-deployment cultural training course established to prepare US forces for what the military calls "irregular warfare" in Iraq.
The meeting starts with a prayer suggested by the group's Iraqi interpreter, who wears a marine uniform. "No matter where we are, in Wadi Sahara or in Khalidiya, we are working as one for the good of this city, and as long as we are one, we will get the best results, Insha'allah," says the "mayor" of Wadi Sahara, addressing the marines. Despite what the blue-domed mosque nearby suggests, the training is not taking place in Iraq but rather in Wadi Sahara and Khalidiya, two fictional Iraqi towns built in the middle of the Mojave desert, in California, as part of a $23m project. The Iraqi "sheikhs" are mostly Iraqis recruited as role players.
The Centre for Advanced Operational Culture Training is the new military body specialised in "improving marines' cultural skills and foreign language abilities". Barack Salmoni, deputy director of the centre, says the focus reflects a 2006 military assessment that "developing broader linguistic capability and cultural understanding is critical to prevail in the long war and to meet 21st century challenges". During the six- to eight-week course, the marines learn about 200 basic words in Arabic - enough to allow them to deal with local people on the ground in Iraq. Choosing his words carefully, the marine commander in the training session tries to explain the difficulties US forces face in building trust. "While my marines are dedicated in working with the Iraqi army and police to eliminate the threat from insurgents, we know that the enemy insurgents hide among the people and that the people are not our enemy," he says.
And, of course, the problem goes both ways. "The local population is becoming intimidated because they don't know who to trust," reserve army commander Lieutenant General Jack Stultz says. In 2003, on the eve of the Iraq war, the administration of US President George W Bush excluded "nation building" in Iraq and Afghanistan from its plans. But, Mr Salmoni says, the US military became aware of the need to give the troops' mission in Iraq "civil and cultural dimensions" when the Bush administration decided to establish a new Iraqi government. "We noticed that we had the military tactics but lacked the knowledge of Iraqi laws and traditions so we needed to learn about them all. I am afraid we didn't anticipate all these bifurcations."
Since January, newly established PRTs (Provincial Reconstruction Teams) have increased their operations in Iraqi cities. The military is becoming more involved in "civil affairs", which entails helping to build local infrastructure. And this, says Lt Gen Stultz, means "the Reserve Army, like the army, is in transformation". He believes that the civil affairs teams "can do more to build the trust" with the population. The reservists are the main force in the civil affairs teams in Iraq. And according to the Pentagon, only 260 soldiers out of some 200,000 in the Army Reserve speak Arabic.
Nonetheless, says Lt Gen Stultz, "if a person has a specific language skill that's a plus for us, but I'm not focused on recruiting Arabic speakers". 'Not only warriors' Marines start their career in a Marine Corps base in Quantico, Virginia. There, I met Frank Mease, now a major in the marines. He did the culture training before deploying to Iraq last year. He says that it "was preparing us to be able to execute our duties professionally and work with the Iraqis and with the local population.
"Our mission overall is to provide a secure situation to the Iraqi security forces to take over and to the Iraqi government to stabilise itself." Mr Salmoni acknowledges that the perspective on the military's role has changed. There was a "misunderstanding when the Americans first arrived in Iraq," he says. The assumption was that their mission was "purely military". But after the soldiers started this kind of training "the relationship with Iraqis got better," he says. "There is a fundamental shift in what it means to be a marine. We are not only warriors any more, we are teachers, we are builders, we are doctors and engineers."
As the insurgency in Iraq has grown, raids on houses and mosques have become a daily event for the US military in Iraq. These operations are performed mainly by the marines, who are required to undertake the cultural training programme if they are to be deployed to Iraq.Joe Harris, the training centre's Arabic teacher, describes the main topics covered on the course as "religion, the importance of mosques to Muslims, the importance of family values, and how to treat men in front of their families and tribes, and how to conduct searches in houses and mosques".
Mr Harris, an American of Moroccan origin, is a former marine himself. He considers Islam and the treatment of women to be particularly delicate subjects in Iraq - and has coached soldiers on how to deal with them sensitively. When one marine major was asked in a cultural training session by one of the "tribesmen" if his battalion had any Muslims, he respectfully answered that eight of his soldiers were Muslim and that he was ready to introduce them to the tribesmen.
The second sensitive question he received was from another tribesman asking how many wives he had. He cautiously answered: "I have only one... only one wife and we have five beautiful children together, but what I admire about Arab men is that they are able to marry four women and satisfy them all... I consider one wife a full-time job!"