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Iraqi Violence Straining U.S. Political and Military Plans

By Steven R. Weisman and Robert F. Worth


The violence in Iraq following the bombing of a Shiite mosque this week has abruptly thrown the Bush administration on the defensive, and there were signs on Thursday that American officials recognized new perils to their plans to withdraw troops this year. The American enterprise in Iraq seemed beleaguered on two fronts, political and military.

Senior administration officials in Washington and Baghdad said the next few days would test American and Iraqi resolve, as the U.S. military, despite pressure to intervene and facing angry accusations that they stood by while Iraq erupted in revenge killings, holds back to see if Iraqis can quell violence by themselves. An unusual daytime curfew in Baghdad scheduled for Friday Prayer could help, the officials said.

Iraqis and some American officials also said the Bush administration might have to rethink its political strategy in Baghdad.

The U.S. ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, has reached out to Sunnis, pushing to include them in the government and pressing Shiite leaders hard to keep politicians with ties to Shiite militias out of sensitive security posts. Sunnis have accused these Shiite leaders of running death squads. But Khalilzad’s stance has infuriated Shiites.

Khalilzad said Monday that the United States would not “invest the resources of the American people” in Iraqi security forces if they were “run by people who are sectarian.” The comment provoked unusually direct criticism from Shiite leaders, some of whom suggested that maligning the Iraqi security leadership led to the attack on the mosque in Samarra on Wednesday.

Because sensitive negotiations are continuing and because officials fear that American comments could further inflame a volatile situation, few officials interviewed here or in Baghdad would be quoted by name.

For the moment, American officials said they doubted that Khalilzad would change course. They said the Americans were pressing Iraqi leaders not to go forward with political negotiations without Sunni participation.

Since the major Sunni party has suspended its participation in the talks, officials hope waiting a few days may allow tensions to recede.

Iraqi security forces were unable — or, Sunni leaders suggested, unwilling — to quell the violence after the bombing. In many cases, the American military was either not present or not able to stop Shiite mobs exacting revenge killings across Iraq.

Military officials said the Pentagon was in effect watching and waiting to see what the next 48 hours will bring before deciding on whether a more visible American presence might be needed — in effect, sending American forces back into areas that they had turned over to the Iraqis.

A senior official said there was no thought being given now to changing the “trajectory” of pulling American forces back and eventually withdrawing part of them this year.

But other administration officials said expanding the American presence might be necessary to contain the violence, partly because despite strenuous efforts, the Iraqi armed forces are still divided along sectarian lines. In particular, Iraqi Sunnis see Shiite-dominated troops as part of the problem, not the solution.