WASHINGTON, Dec. 18, 2006 — -- The Pentagon's latest assessment of the security situation in Iraq paints a grim picture of the level of violence, which it said is higher than at any time since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein's regime.
One top general categorized the spike in violence as rising at "an unbelievably rapid pace."
Called "Measuring Stability and Security in Iraq," the quarterly report said the level of violence in Iraq in "all specific measurable categories" has reached "the highest level on record" and poses a "grave threat" to the Iraqi government.
According to the report, the number of attacks in the last three months rose by 22 percent overall over the previous three months.
The heaviest price has been paid by Iraqi civilians, whose casualty rate remained 60 percent higher than in February, when the bombing of the Samarra Golden Mosque occurred, which set off a sharp increase in sectarian violence. Those civilian casualties resulted mostly from sectarian murders and executions, the report said.
The report lays the blame for the rising number of civilian casualties squarely on the sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shiites. American officials say that conflict constantly feeds what they call a cycle of violence.
The report's authors attribute much of the rising violence to Shiite militias, particularly the Mahdi army, the private militia of influential Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. The report concludes that the Mahdi army has replaced al Qaeda as the most dangerous source of sectarian violence in Iraq.
In releasing the report, Lt. Gen. John Sattler of the Joint Staff described the sectarian violence as having risen at "an unbelievably rapid pace." He told reporters that the sectarian violence is "the premier challenge facing the coalition … and is something that has to be squashed."
Sattler added that military planners are all in agreement: "We have to get ahead of that violent cycle and break that continuous chain of sectarian violence."
As the debate rages on in Washington about whether more troops are needed in Iraq to quell the violence, Sattler noted how difficult it would be to end the sectarian violence, regardless of how many troops are in the fight.
"I don't know how many forces you could push into a country -- either us or coalition or Iraqi forces -- that could cover the entire country where these nefarious death squads couldn't find somebody," Sattler said. "They're not after particular individuals. It's a tit-for-tat thing that keeps going back and forth."
Hours before the report was released, newly installed Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned of how high the stakes are in Iraq for the United States if the sectarian violence is not brought down.
"We simply cannot afford to fail in the Middle East," Gates said. "Failure in Iraq at this juncture would be a calamity that would haunt our nation, impair our credibility, and endanger Americans for decades to come."