Attacks in Iraq on U.S.-led forces, local security personnel and civilians have surged 22 percent to record levels, the Pentagon said in its latest quarterly report on Iraq published on Monday.
The report, published as the United States seeks a new strategy in Iraq, identified the Mehdi Army of radical Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al Sadr as the group most damaging to Iraqi security and the biggest catalyst for sectarian violence. It noted an increase in civilian casualties and linked this to the rise of sectarian death squads, which it said were aided by elements of the Iraqi security forces. Members of Medhi Army militia have been accused of belonging to Shi'ite death squads.
The report was released on the day Robert Gates was sworn in as U.S. defense secretary and as President George W. Bush considers changes to his Iraq policy. Gates replaced Donald Rumsfeld, heavily criticized for his handling of the war. "Attack levels -- both overall and in all specific measurable categories -- were the highest on record during this reporting period," said the report, "Measuring Stability and Security in Iraq", produced for the U.S. Congress.
The average number of attacks per week rose to 959 in the three months from Aug. 12 to Nov. 10, from 784 in the previous three months, according to figures provided by the Pentagon to accompany the report. Nearly 3,000 U.S. troops have died in Iraq since the United States invaded while the violence has killed more than 50,000 Iraqis. A bimonthly U.N. report put the number of Iraqi civilian deaths at 3,709 for October alone.
While U.S. commanders have said they continue to battle insurgents and al Qaeda militants, they have identified sectarian violence between Shi'ite and Sunni Muslims as the biggest obstacle to restoring peace in Iraq. "The group that is currently having the greatest negative affect on the security situation in Iraq is Jaysh al-Mahdi (Medhi Army), which has replaced al Qaeda in Iraq as the most dangerous accelerant of potentially self-sustaining sectarian violence in Iraq," the report said.
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."
The Mehdi Army has not been declared a hostile organization by U.S. forces or the Iraqi government, which relies on Sadr for support. Rodman suggested that issue would be examined as part of the broader review of Iraq policy. "Whether we take a new step that we haven't taken before, that's something that's under review," he said.
The report said civilian casualties from attacks had risen a further 2 percent over the previous three months and by some 60 percent compared to earlier in the year. "Death squads predominantly target civilians and the increase in civilian casualties is directly correlated to an increase in death squad activities," the report said. "Shi'a death squads leveraged support from some elements of the Iraqi Police Service and the National Police who facilitated freedom of movement and provided advance warning of upcoming operations," the report also said. "This is a major reason for the increased levels of murders and executions," it said.
The Pentagon's figures put daily civilian casualties at 93 for the reporting period, although the report says the numbers are not precise as they are from unverified initial reports and should be used only to draw comparisons with previous periods...