BAGHDAD, Iraq – The U.S-led campaign to curb violence in Baghdad neighborhood by neighborhood has failed, and American officials are looking for a new strategy, a top U.S. military official said Thursday.

Maj. Gen. William Caldwell said that instead of quelling violence, the campaign, code-named Operation Forward Together, had contributed to a spike in U.S. military deaths.

The operation “has not met our overall expectations of sustaining a reduction in the levels of violence,” Caldwell said. “We are working very closely with the government of Iraq to determine how best to refocus our efforts.”

In Washington, Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Mark Ballesteros called Caldwell’s assessment “accurate and candid.”

Caldwell’s comments, which came during his weekly briefing for reporters here, were a rare public admission that an American strategy in Iraq hasn’t worked, and it came as Republicans and Democrats in Washington are pressing the Bush administration to devise a new approach. Polls have shown that Iraq is the No. 1 issue among U.S. voters less than three weeks before congressional elections.

Bush administration policy has been built on two assumptions: that American troops would be able to shed some security responsibilities as the numbers of trained Iraqi police officers and soldiers grew, and that the elected government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki would be able to assert control over Shiite Muslim militias aligned with its political supporters.

Neither assumption has proved true. Violence has continued to surge, even as tens of thousands of U.S.-trained police officers and soldiers have been added to the Iraqi security forces, and al-Maliki’s government has yet to present a program to disarm the militias.

Operation Forward Together was considered a last-ditch effort to tame Baghdad, where violence between Sunni and Shiite Muslims has reached unprecedented levels. The plan involved pulling 12,000 American soldiers from elsewhere in Iraq and teaming them with Iraqi troops to go door-to-door in Baghdad’s most troubled neighborhoods and root out armed groups. The neighborhoods were then to be the focus of economic-development campaigns.

Shortly after the operation began Aug. 7, Caldwell hailed it, saying Baghdad’s murder rate had dropped 52 percent. But, as McClatchy Newspapers first reported, statistics from the Baghdad morgue suggested a much smaller decrease in violent deaths.

Baghdad police reported that 27 bodies were found around the city Thursday, 11 in neighborhoods originally targeted in the security plan.

The number of U.S. soldiers and Marines killed in Baghdad has skyrocketed, and October is on course to be the third deadliest month for American service members since Saddam Hussein was toppled in April 2003.

U.S. officials announced the deaths of two more soldiers and a Marine on Thursday, bringing the death toll so far this month to 73.

Despondent

Caldwell sounded despondent as he acknowledged the death toll. He said U.S. officials were reassessing the assumptions they’d made before implementing the Baghdad security plan.

“We’re asking ourselves if the conditions under which it was first devised and planned still exist today or have the conditions changed and therefore a modification to that plan needs to be made,” he said.

Caldwell said “there is no question” that sectarian violence has increased in the neighborhoods that were swept.

“We find the insurgent elements – the extremists – are in fact punching back hard. They’re trying to get back into those areas,” he said.

Caldwell didn’t say how American officials might adjust their plans. But he said U.S. troops were re-entering the southern Baghdad neighborhood of Dora, one of the capital’s most violent areas. Dora was among the first neighborhoods swept, and it’s now the site of daily discoveries of bodies bearing signs of torture.

Rise in violence

Caldwell said there was a 22 percent increase in violent incidents during the first three weeks of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month, compared with the previous three weeks. He didn’t specify how the military compiled its numbers, and it’s unclear how reliable they are. American officials have released several statistics during the past month that have later proved to be inaccurate.

U.S. pronouncements about other Iraqi developments also have been subsequently contradicted. American officials said earlier this week that the al-Maliki government had transferred two Ministry of Interior commanders who had been linked to possible death-squad police units. But when ministry officials announced that the commanders were being transferred, they called the moves promotions.

“The commanders are very cherished by the minister and are appreciated for serving the great Iraq, and they will still be in the ministry,” ministry spokesman Abdul Kareem Khalif said.

Caldwell conceded that al-Maliki had ordered U.S. officials to release Sheik Mazin al-Saidy, a top leader aligned with fiery Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose Mahdi Army militia is thought to be responsible for much of the sectarian killings. Caldwell wouldn’t say why.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.