WASHINGTON, (IPS/GIN) – President George W. Bush’s “surge” strategy was supposed to enhance security in Baghdad and Iraq’s predominantly Sunni Muslim al-Anbar province, but violence continues to wrack the country.

Implementation of the surge is halfway finished and civilian deaths in the Iraqi capital have fallen somewhat since it was launched in January. But despite gains in Baghdad, overall civilian and military casualties throughout the country have risen about 10 percent since late 2006, according to a recent military report.

In addition, the five horrific bombings that killed nearly 200 people in mainly Shia areas of Baghdad recently marked one of the highest daily tolls since the U.S. invasion more than four years ago. The mass killing followed the recent attack in the heart of the U.S.-controlled Green Zone, where a suicide bomber blew himself up in the Iraq Parliament’s cafeteria, killing one lawmaker and seven other people.


Moreover, the increasingly frequent bombings, many of which have been followed by spontaneous popular demonstrations against U.S. troops and Iraqi security forces, have sparked fears that Shia militias, which have been relatively inactive since Bush announced the surge in January, may re-emerge to exact revenge against the Sunni population.

Those fears were compounded by the recent withdrawal from the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki six cabinet ministers loyal to Moqtada al-Sadr, whose Mahdi militia, by far the largest paramilitary group in Iraq, is believed to have been responsible for much of the death-squad activity against Baghdad’s Sunni residents before the surge.

Indeed, 25 bodies, all showing signs of torture and summary execution, were found on Baghdad’s streets Apr. 18, adding to mounting evidence that Shia militias have begun taking revenge.

In addition, what advances have been made on the security front have not been matched by progress achieving national reconciliation, a point noted even by U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates after a recent visit to Baghdad.

Constitutional amendments and other legislation designed to reassure Sunnis about their place in a post-Baathist Iraq were supposed to have been approved last year, but they have made virtually no headway.

“I believe that faster progress can be made in the political reconciliation process,” Mr. Gates said in a recent speech to the Chamber of Commerce in Cairo.

The surge strategy, which calls for the addition of some 30,000 U.S. troops to the 140,000 marines and soldiers already deployed in Iraq as of February, is based on the assumption that securing Baghdad is essential for preventing an all-out sectarian war between Sunni insurgents and Shia militias, and for creating the political space necessary to reconcile the two sects.

The plan called for almost all of the additional troops, as well as thousands more Iraqi soldiers and police, to patrol neighborhoods in the capital to guarantee security and fight the “ethnic cleansing” that over the past year or so transformed many mixed districts into segregated enclaves dominated by armed groups of one sect or the other. About half of the new troops have been deployed so far.

The plan has registered some successes, according to the Bush administration and its supporters, although they concede that a final judgment cannot be rendered until the surge reaches its peak in June or July. Not only has death-squad activity in Baghdad remained below pre-surge levels, but also several hundred families who had been forced to leave their homes in mixed areas have returned, according to the Pentagon.

“Right now, the signs are more hopeful than they have been in many months,” said Frederick Kagan, a military historian at the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute, echoing similar statements by other champions of the surge, notably Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and President Bush.

Writing in the conservative Weekly Standard, Mr. Kagan also pointed to recent reports that Sunni tribes in al-Anbar, the other focus of the surge, have increasingly turned against al-Qaida in Iraq, the Islamist extremist group that Washington says is responsible for most of the recent anti-Shia violence, including the recent car bombings.

But even if the surge makes further progress in Baghdad–a possibility that depends on the prevention of a new escalation of sectarian violence in the wake of the most recent bombings– developments outside the capital could still overwhelm it.

Violence has been particularly intense in the north. Tal Afar, which was pacified last year by a counter-insurgency effort often cited as a model for the surge strategy, suffered the war’s single deadliest attack in March when a suicide truck bombing killed 152 people in a predominantly Shia area. The bombing set off revenge killings of some 70 Sunni civilians by Shia militia and police.

Sectarian violence and attacks on U.S. forces have also become intense in Diyala province, northeast of Baghdad. In March, U.S. commanders felt compelled to divert hundreds of soldiers there from elsewhere in the country.

“While violence against Iraqis is down in some Baghdad neighborhoods where we have surged forces, it is up dramatically in the belt ringing Baghdad,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Joseph Biden said recently. “Essentially, when we squeeze the water balloon in one place, it bulges somewhere else.”

Southern Iraq, especially in oil-rich Basra province, has also become increasingly violent as a result of an intra-Shia conflict between Sadr’s force and its rivals, particularly the Badr Brigade of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and another armed party, Fadhila.

The violence there not only threatens to further weaken the Maliki government and the Shia coalition on which it is based, but could, if it deteriorates further, threaten key oil-export infrastructure that is essential to keeping Iraq’s tattered economy afloat.

Tensions and violence are also on the rise in the other major oil-producing region of Iraq, Kirkuk, which Kurdish leaders hope to bring under their control as a result of a referendum that is bitterly opposed by the city’s Arab and Turkmen residents but which, according to the constitution, is supposed to take place before the end of this year.

“If the referendum is held later this year over the objections of the other communities, the civil war is very likely to spread to Kirkuk and the Kurdish region,” according to a recent report issued by the International Crisis Group.

The crisis group accused Washington of ignoring the looming crisis there due to its preoccupation with Baghdad.

Washington’s failure so far to persuade the Kurds to postpone the referendum has also added to growing tensions with neighboring Turkey, a NATO ally of the U.S., which has recently sent several high-level delegations to Washington in recent weeks to express its concern over both Kirkuk and the failure of Kurdistan’s authorities to prevent cross-border raids by Kurdish Workers Party guerrillas against Turkish targets.

Recently, Turkey’s top military commander, General Yaser Buyukanit, publicly called for his forces to be permitted to take military action against the guerrillas in northern Iraq, a possibility that observers here see as increasingly likely and one that could embroil Iraq’s one peaceful region in a major new conflict. “Of bad news in Iraq, it seems there is no end,” wrote a Washington Post columnist with respect to the looming crisis between Turkey and the Kurds.