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

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The Americans and their Iraqi allies face growing opposition. The Pentagon once assumed the insurgents numbered less than 5,000; now its analysts privately estimate there are 20,000 or more. The deputy commander of coalition forces in Iraq, British Major General Andrew Graham, estimates there are 40,000 to 50,000 active insurgent fighters. While many Iraqi civilians bitterly oppose the guerrillas' violence, few openly side with the U.S. The risk of further inflaming public opinion has forced U.S. commanders to refrain from launching punishing assaults to take back insurgent-held areas. Even the U.S.-installed government of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, sensitive to its lack of legitimacy, has been ambivalent about using American might in all-out offensives against fellow Iraqis.

For the time being, U.S. forces are stuck in place while the violence escalates. Some military experts who supported the war now believe the U.S. does not have a plan to win. To independent analysts like William Arkin, who maintains close ties to the Pentagon, the Administration is "completely lost at the tactical level." As more locales become sanctuaries for rebels, some military experts say the U.S. can't afford to stand by and wait for Iraqi forces to be trained to retake them. "We need a strategy now," says Representative Ike Skelton of Missouri, the senior Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, "to force the insurgents from their holes." Some Pentagon officials privately say it was a dangerous mistake to delay taking back the no-go zones. "The longer we wait, the tougher it is going to be," a Joint Chiefs of Staff officer says. Some frontline U.S. commanders are also pushing hard for earlier action. But their superiors in Baghdad and Washington argue that waiting until Iraqi forces are ready will give the new government a better chance of sustaining control. Pentagon officials concede that heavy U.S. action before November could boomerang if things go badly, hurting Bush on the eve of the presidential vote. But they insist that the White House has put no brake on their decisions.

While they hold back on major offensives, Washington policymakers say their strategy is to mollify insurgents where they can and use muscle where they can't. The U.S. is letting Iraqi officials pursue negotiated solutions in some places, while American units apply measured military pressure to other resistance strongholds to keep insurgents off balance. Iraqi troops will be groomed to tackle big cities by first carrying out small-scale operations against insurgent villages. U.S. warplanes struck insurgent hideouts in Fallujah last week, and combined U.S.-Iraqi ground troops stormed the northern border city of Tall 'Afar to wipe out what the military called "a large terrorist element." And for the first time in months, U.S. forces rolled into the off-limits Sunni city of Samarra, after local sheiks cut a deal with insurgents who had become the de facto town rulers. In a small step forward, the Americans were allowed to install an interim mayor and a new police chief. But when U.S. forces departed, at least 500 armed guerrillas resumed their own patrols of the streets. Nevertheless, said a senior Pentagon official, "we have started eating away at these sanctuaries."

The U.S. may soon have to do a lot more. Leaving key cities to the militants much longer could cripple plans to hold national elections in January. The violence has already prevented the start of voter registration or public campaigning. Lieut. General Thomas Metz, U.S. ground forces commander in Iraq, said last week that the "cancer" of resistance would not delay the vote, but he suggested some of the hot spots might have to be excluded. That would compromise the election's legitimacy and alienate Sunni cities that were bypassed.

In the long run, pacifying enough of the country to allow for a U.S. pullback will require not just an effective military strategy but also a political one. The U.S. has failed in 19 months to get significant reconstruction work off the ground. Lack of security is partly to blame: kidnappings, killings and sabotage have driven out aid agencies and private contractors. The Bush Administration has managed to spend about $1 billion of the $18.4 billion Congress appropriated for reconstruction a year ago. And plenty more may be required to stabilize Iraq—a prospect that seems particularly dim in the midst of a presidential campaign in which neither candidate seems willing to call for more sacrifices from the American people or prepare them for the likelihood that the violence will get worse before it gets better. With so many tough decisions ahead, that may prove to be the biggest failing of all.

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