Leading article: The limitations of the military

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The Independent Online

Some alarm bells should ring at the appointment of General Ray Odierno as head of the coalition forces in Baghdad. The nickname of the man who ran the counter-insurgency in Tikrit from 2003, and oversaw the capture of Saddam Hussein, is "Tony Soprano". This derives as much from his tough attitude to the enemy as it does to his bulky frame. Critics have said his heavy-handed tactics against Sunni Arabs repeated the mistakes America made in Vietnam by alienating the local population, thus fuelling the insurgency.

More recently all that has been forgotten. General Odierno, as deputy to the outgoing supreme commander General David Petraeus, was the first senior officer to insist publicly that more troops were needed. The resulting surge, together with the Petraeus/Odierno strategy of moving US soldiers off large bases and into smaller outposts in Iraqi villages and neighbourhoods, has been widely credited with sharply reducing the violence in Iraq and averting a civil war.

In war, of course, things are not always as they seem, or are spun. There are other causes for the reduction in violence, including the effective ceasefire of Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia and the de facto partition of Baghdad into Sunni and Shia areas. When such subterranean factors are taken into account, more of the same from General Odierno may not be what is required, as the news from Basra this week suggests.

What has happened in Iraq's second city has been painted a triumph. Iraqi government troops, backed by a thunderous bombardment by US warplanes and British artillery, have regained control of the streets from the militiamen. Music stores have reopened and alcohol is once more discreetly available. But this has been done at the cost of postponing the plan to withdraw about 1,500 British troops from Iraq. Even then, General Odierno's supporters in Washington suggest that it was only done when the US poured in an additional 1,000 troops and grabbed the steering wheel from the British command. As a precedent that is not encouraging. Nor does it augur well for a strategic British withdrawal, despite the insistence of the Defence Secretary Des Browne that he still plans to cut the 4,000-strong remaining British force during the next six-monthly rotation.

This is a political imperative which must not be blown off course by the exigencies of military manoeuvrings; especially when such victories as occur will always be short-term in a world where Mr al-Sadr's militia is the authentic voice of millions of the very poorest Shia Muslims. Tactics must not be allowed to drive strategy in Iraq.