With a new general in charge, the U.S. military's plans to fight Iraq's insurgents are expected to emphasize improving Iraqis' quality of life, rather than killing or capturing guerrillas.
Army Lt. Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, who became commander of Multi-National Corps Iraq last week, said he would employ across Iraq many of the strategies he used to quell uprisings in Baghdad when he led the Army's 1st Cavalry Division in 2003 and 2004.
"It was not uncommon for the 1st Cavalry Division to be engaged in intense urban combat in one part of the city, while just a few blocks away we had units replacing damaged infrastructure, helping to foster small business growth, or facilitating the development of local government," Chiarelli told The Associated Press in an e-mail.
The goal, he said, is to "deprive insurgents and terrorists of their support base" among disaffected Iraqis — part of a strategy that parallels U.S. political overtures to the Sunni Arabs.
Counterinsurgency experts in Washington and allies in Britain have long urged the Pentagon to pursue a more nuanced style in Iraq, saying the U.S. preference for "search and destroy" offensives squandered precious time and helped send new recruits to the guerrillas.
Experts criticize the Bush administration's preference for expensive capital rebuilding schemes such as large power stations that have largely been scuttled by insurgent attacks and whose benefits have often not trickled down to Iraqis.
A U.S. government audit released last week also showed that billions of dollars in projects to improve water, sewer and electrical systems in Iraq could not be completed because the money had to be used to increase security.
Many say Chiarelli's maverick methods from 2004 — favoring smaller-scale, more easily completed projects such as wells and sewage — are being seen as prescient, dovetailing with a rethinking in Washington of U.S. counterinsurgency strategy.
In Baghdad's Shiite Muslim slum of Sadr City in 2004, Chiarelli's troops fought street battles with heavily armed insurgents while escorting plumbers and sewage contractors to streets nearby, where they upgraded squalid living conditions.
The tactic led to grass-roots pressure on the Shiite rebels to end their resistance and give the Americans a chance to make good on their promises.
"What we found in Baghdad is that some of the greatest infrastructure problems existed at the neighborhood level," said Chiarelli, 55, a Seattle native who replaced Lt. Gen. John R. Vines as commander of Multi-National Corps-Iraq, which comprises 150,000 troops from 27 countries.
Sadr City residents today credit American forces with modest improvements, although short of what they'd hoped for. Many believe the neighborhood's calm owes more to the entry into politics of militia leader and radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
Chiarelli also said American troops will transfer more battle duties to Iraqi troops with embedded U.S. trainers. Future offensives, Chiarelli said, "will increasingly be precision, intelligence-based operations with the Iraqis in the lead."
The Iraqi army, in turn, will shift responsibility for internal security to Iraqi police, he said.
More U.S. Army Military Police will be embedded in Iraqi police units "as we focus effort on putting the police in the lead for domestic security," he said.
The new MP mission is expected to be one of the most dangerous in Iraq, since thousands of Iraqi police have been killed in an onslaught of homicide bombings and other attacks.
The strategy is worth the risks, said Andrew Krepinevich, a retired Army officer and counterinsurgency expert whose criticisms of U.S. efforts in Iraq have been cited by Chiarelli and other top U.S. generals.
"If our only objective was to avoid casualties, we would abandon Iraq," said Krepinevich, who directs the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington. "We have to risk increased casualties in the near term to achieve the mission and reduce casualties in the long term."
Chiarelli said American units would be "exposed to some hazards that are unique to policing" but that it was unclear whether police trainers were at higher risk than other front-line troops.
The commander was cautious when asked whether his changes in strategy would quell Iraq's rampant violence.
"I can't predict when the violence will subside and I fully expect there to be spikes in enemy activity as we continue this mission," he said. "But I do believe that if we are successful in implementing the strategies outlined earlier, the Iraqi people will be given a fair chance to determine which governmental, economic and security systems are appropriate for their future."
The new strategy comes as U.S. officials are making overtures to Sunni Arabs, who form most of the insurgent ranks. U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad is urging Shiites and Kurds to bring more Sunnis into the next government, in hopes of preventing the schism between the groups from widening into civil war.
Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, deputy director of planning for the U.S. Central Command, said Chiarelli "clearly had a different idea" about counterinsurgency warfare than other American commanders.
Chiarelli's "hearts-and-minds" strategy is welcome among those who said U.S. offensives like those recently near Syria were making matters worse by spurring revenge attacks and insurgent recruiting drives.
History shows that local forces — not foreign troops — stand a better chance against an established insurgency, said James Dobbins, a former Bush administration envoy to Afghanistan who now heads military analysis for the Rand Corp.
"That we have had to spend several years relearning these lessons is a measure of the U.S. defense establishment's failure to take counterinsurgency seriously after the American retreat from Vietnam," Dobbins said.