BAGHDAD, Iraq - A growing number of senior U.S. military officers in Iraq have concluded that there is no long-term military solution to an insurgency that has killed thousands of Iraqis and more than 1,300 U.S. troops during the past two years.
Instead, officers say, the only way to end the guerrilla war is through Iraqi politics - an arena that so far has been crippled by divisions between Shiite Muslims, whose coalition dominated the January elections, and Sunni Muslims, who are a minority in Iraq but form the base of support for the insurgency.
"I think the more accurate way to approach this right now is to concede that ... this insurgency is not going to be settled, the terrorists and the terrorism in Iraq is not going to be settled, through military options or military operations," Brig. Gen. Donald Alston, the chief U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, said last week in a comment that echoes what other senior officers say. "It's going to be settled in the political process."
Gen. George W. Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, expressed similar sentiments, calling the military's efforts "the Pillsbury Doughboy idea" - pressing the insurgency in one area only causes it to rise elsewhere.
"Like in Baghdad," Casey said in an interview last week. "We push in Baghdad - they're down to about less than a car bomb a day in Baghdad over the last week - but in north-center [Iraq] ... they've gone up.
"The political process will be the decisive element."
The recognition that a military solution is not in the offing has led U.S. and Iraqi officials to signal they are willing to negotiate with insurgent groups, or their intermediaries.
"It has evolved in the course of normal business," said a senior U.S. diplomatic official in Baghdad, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of U.S. policy to defer to the Iraqi government on Iraqi political matters. "We have now encountered people who at least claim to have some form of a relationship with the insurgency."
The message is markedly different from previous statements by U.S. officials who spoke of quashing the insurgency by rounding up or killing "dead enders" loyal to former dictator Saddam Hussein. As recently as two weeks ago, in a Memorial Day interview on CNN's Larry King Live, Vice President Dick Cheney said he believed the insurgency was in its "last throes."
But the violence has continued unabated, even though 44 of the 55 Iraqis portrayed in the military's famous "deck of cards" have been killed or captured, including Hussein.
Lt. Col. Frederick P. Wellman, who works with the task force overseeing the training of Iraqi security troops, said the insurgency doesn't seem to be running out of new recruits, a dynamic fueled by tribal members seeking revenge for relatives killed in fighting.
"We can't kill them all," Wellman said. "When I kill one I create three."
U.S. officials had hoped that January's national elections would blunt the insurgency by giving the population hope for their political future. But so far, the political process has not in any meaningful way included Iraq's Sunni Muslim population.
Most of Iraq's Sunni Muslims, motivated either by fear or boycott, did not vote, and they hold a scant 17 seats in the 275-member parliament.
With Shiites and Kurds stocking the nation's security forces with members of their militias, Sunni Muslims have been marginalized and, according to some analysts in Iraq, have become more willing to join armed groups.
Since September, about 85 percent of the violence in Iraq has taken place in just four of the 18 provinces: the Sunni heartland of Anbar, Baghdad, Ninevah and Salah al Din.