Mission Still Not Accomplished

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THORNE ANDERSON / CORBIS FOR TIME

WASTELAND: An Iraqi wanders through the ruins of Najaf after heavy fighting in the city last month

The U.S. military has been here before: caught in a conflict where the thing it does best—fighting—can't win the war. In Iraq today, brute force is a wasting asset, as Major General Peter Chiarelli, commander of the 1st Cavalry Division, knows firsthand. On a hot late-summer day, his soldiers entered Baghdad's Sadr City slum to quell attacks from militiamen loyal to rebel cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

Chiarelli's troops came under fierce fire as dozens of rocket-propelled grenades (rpgs) pounded their vehicles, and roadside bombs blew the tracks off a tank. For four hours, the two forces battled until the outmatched gunmen melted into the shadows. "We killed folks. There's no doubt we did," says Chiarelli. He knew the fighting would soon resume, but he sent his men back into the same neighborhood to distribute food supplies and materials such as cement, nails and boards to repair homes. It was part of the military's mixed mission: to defeat the insurgents while trying to win the backing of Iraq's resentful citizens.

But these days even good intentions don't add up to much. Chiarelli last month had hoped to drain recruits from al-Sadr's Mahdi militia by hiring 15,000 Sadr City men to clean the district's filth-filled streets. When a truce between coalition forces and al-Sadr broke down, however, the work project collapsed. The state of the district helps explain, Chiarelli says, why "a guy in Sadr City feels there is no hope." There's sewage in his yard, he gets one hour of electricity out of six, and he has no job. "If someone offers him money to shoot an RPG at Americans," Chiarelli says, "I would imagine it's not a hard choice."

That kind of despair, 19 months after the U.S. toppled Saddam Hussein, is adding fuel to the angry guerrilla insurgency that the Bush Administration acknowledged last week is out of hand. Important parts of the country, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Richard Myers said, are controlled by rebels. Principal cities and major roads west and north of the capital are ruled by Sunni insurgents. Al-Sadr's men launch uprisings at will across the wide Shi'ite belt, and even parts of Baghdad are no-go zones for U.S. troops and the frail forces of the interim Iraqi government. All this has helped make the peace much bloodier than the war: last month anti-U.S. attacks climbed to 87 a day, more than double the rate in 2003 and the first half of 2004. The U.S. death toll since sovereignty was returned to Iraq on June 28 has eclipsed the number killed in the invasion, and the total tally just passed 1,000. The wounded number more than 7,000. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld estimates that coalition forces killed up to 2,500 suspected insurgents in August, but the will of the rebels shows few signs of cracking. Attacks on U.S. troops increasingly come in the form of direct fire from small arms and suicide bombs, the tactics of a more sophisticated and in-your-face foe.

The Bush Administration would prefer to avoid any bloody showdowns until after the U.S. presidential election in November, but it faces hard decisions now. The crisis on the ground imperils prospects for Iraq's national elections in January, the results of which could determine how quickly the U.S. can draw down its troop levels. For a legitimate vote to go forward, U.S. and Iraqi forces must soon wrest back control of the country. But there are no easy ways to do that.

With their overwhelming firepower, coalition troops could take any Iraqi city at any time, but the collateral damage would be heavy and the political costs high. "It's an inherent dilemma," says a senior U.S. intelligence official. "If you don't go in, you've got a no-go zone" that cedes control to the enemy. "If you do go in," he adds, "you cause resentment and anger" that breed more support for the insurgency. Back inside the cities, U.S. patrols are a magnet for attacks, resulting in higher casualties and sparking the very violence they are trying to suppress.

What can Washington do? Since last spring, the Administration has bet on a tenuous strategy of trying to hang in long enough to train and equip an Iraqi force sufficiently strong to take over the job. But the U.S. dawdled for nearly a year before it got serious about training and equipping the Iraqis, and as a result, they are still not ready to take over primary responsibility for dispersing the insurgents and then policing the cities. A U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad says, "The training program is getting up to speed now." A trained Iraqi National Guard should total 145,000 by the end of December.

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