New Violence Shakes Things Up In Iraq

President Bush on Thursday put his positive spin on developments in Iraq, including the news of clashes between Iraqi security forces and Shiite militias in Basra. The fighting is being presented as evidence that the increase in security with the surge of U.S. troops has enabled Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government to try to break the grip of these militias and criminal gangs on the strategically vital port city. "It looks as though it is a by-product of the success of the surge, in the sense that the Iraqi government has grown and increased in capability to the point where they now feel confident going after extremists," says Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell. "And so we, at this point, though still early, would view it as a sign of success."

But military officials are following the developments warily. "It's not a sign of success," concedes one senior military official. Specifically, military officials are expressing fears that the move could herald an end to the cease-fire declared by radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr last August. The cease-fire has been widely credited as one of the pivotal factors behind reduced violence throughout Iraq. "Clearly that's a concern," says the senior military official. "It's too early to tell."

There are concerns, too, that the open fighting between Iraqi Army soldiers and members of Sadr's militia, the Mahdi Army, could fuel still more violence in Baghdad and elsewhere at a time when the administration has taken pains to emphasize security gains in Iraq--and when U.S. surge troops are currently leaving the country at a rate of one brigade per month.

But for that reason too, say U.S. military officials, Iraqi security forces must prove their mettle, and, they add, Basra may be the place to do it. "If this works in Basra," says the senior U.S. military official, "it will be the Iraqis who quelled it."

Meanwhile, following an hour-and-a-half-long meeting in the secure "Tank" at the Pentagon on Wednesday with President Bush, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen told U.S. News that the president was "well aware of concerns" over stress on the U.S. force from the level of deployments--and the duration--needed for Iraq. "It's something that we've addressed with him routinely in each of the times we've had with him," Mullen says, "and actually he's expressed a concern in that regard."

The joint chiefs have repeatedly emphasized the stress that the surge of U.S. troops in Iraq has placed on soldiers and marines, particularly as deployment lengths increased last year from 12 to 15 months to meet the demands for more troops on the ground in Iraq.

Recent security gains in Iraq "have afforded us the opportunity, potentially, depending on force requirements in Iraq, to look at whether we should and can put additional forces in Afghanistan," he says, adding, "We need them."

These forces would be in addition to the 3,500 Marines now headed to the country. "Can we do it? The potential is now there to answer that question," says Mullen. The answer hinges on balancing demands in Iraq and Afghanistan and the stress on the military, Mullen adds. "Security in Iraq is going to have to be sustained and continue to improve."

For now, conditions on the ground in Iraq continue to be the dominant demand. "Should we be in a position to reduce forces in Iraq to also meet those other needs? Essentially if we are not able, if conditions don't permit continuing the drawdown" beyond pre-surge levels of forces this summer, warns Mullen, "There aren't going to be a lot of other forces on the shelf that we can use."

By Anna Mulrine