The War That Never Ends

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And there's another nagging question: Are the activities of the coalition armed forces contributing to the attacks? In one sense, Sanchez concedes, they surely are, for U.S. units have deliberately been taking the fight to those bands of Iraqis opposed to the occupation. "When you go on the offensive," he says, "you are going to increase the numbers of confrontations and engagements that you have." More worrying is an alternative explanation: that the coalition's heavy-handed actions are acting as a recruiting sergeant for disaffected Iraqis. Sadly, that may be the case. A U.S. official says Paul Bremer, head of the Office of the Coalition Provisional Authority, has ordered a get-tough policy to assure Iraqis that the U.S. is serious about taking on Saddam's Baath Party. It's how that has been done that is problematic.

Take the claims of Raad Hamoudi, a former star goalkeeper of the Iraqi national soccer team who last week found himself back in Baghdad's al-Shaab stadium. He was there with other prisoners, he says, after being picked up by U.S. soldiers looking for a Baath official who lived next door to the house where Hamoudi was staying. (A military spokeswoman would say merely that Hamoudi was arrested "for a reason.") It was only because a U.S. intelligence official took the initiative to find Hamoudi — who claimed to have organized sporting events for the occupying forces — that he was found and eventually released.

The chaotic conditions at the stadium appalled the intelligence official and a Pentagon source who accompanied him there. The men saw young boys being held at gunpoint, kneeling in the hot sand. An Army sergeant, asked why a boy was being detained, replied, "He was caught riding on the back of a stolen bicycle." Says the intelligence source: "This kind of treatment would never be tolerated in the U.S., so why here? Aren't we supposed to be showing them a different way?" Hamoudi, who eventually made it to Jordan, says the American soldiers who arrested him stole two wristwatches. An old man in the house where Hamoudi was arrested asked the soldiers if he could use the bathroom and was told, Hamoudi says, to "piss in his pants."

Such allegations are easy to make and hard to refute. But as they circulate around Iraq, they can create a self-fulfilling prophecy: if Iraqis believe that Americans will always treat them as if they are armed and dangerous, they may resentfully refuse to cooperate with the occupying forces — who will then treat them as if they are armed and dangerous. Already the attacks on Americans mean that some of the lessons of effective peacekeeping — painfully learned during a decade of small wars in Somalia, Bosnia and Kosovo — cannot be applied. Peacekeepers work best when they move in small groups, mingling with the local population, stopping to drink coffee and share a smoke, listening for that key bit of gossip about where the local party chieftain is hiding. But because the Iraqi opposition is going after the "onesies and twosies," says a Pentagon official, U.S. troops will be tempted to hunker down and stay in large groups, protected by vehicles and the full battle rattle of helmets and body armor. You can't collect intelligence that way.

Nor can you do so if your main job is to protect the power grid. But someone must. Baghdad was without power for six days last week, a consequence of looting and sabotage. Locals weren't impressed by the American response. "The Iraqi people saw the Americans defeat Saddam in three weeks," said one man. "Are they telling us they can't fix the power in three months?" Abizaid conceded to the Senate committee that "protection of the infrastructure is a problem." He thought there was no need yet to add more troops to the 145,000 in Iraq. But, he added, "we won't hesitate to ask for more if we need them."

How would that go down at home? So far, the travails in Iraq do not seem to have dimmed Americans' sense that their troops are doing a good job there or diminished Bush's popularity. But what would happen if the trickle of deaths turned into a flood? "It is natural to kidnap American soldiers because they have occupied us," says Tihan Alwan, a village elder standing outside the mosque at Halabsa, a town close to the place from which the two American soldiers were abducted last week. "Not only kidnap," adds his friend Wadah al-Hamdani. "We're going to kill them like sheep." Then he made one of those motions understood in all countries and all cultures — of a knife being drawn across a throat.

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