No Early Return from Iraq for U.S. Troops

  • Share
  • Read Later
Almost four months after an election that held so much promise, the outlook for U.S. forces in Iraq is taking a turn for the worse. Some 14 U.S. troops have been killed in the last three days, bringing the U.S. combat casualty total for the month of May thus far to 54. (Almost 600 Iraqis have died in the same period.) As May shapes up as a contender for the deadliest month for U.S. forces in the past year, worse news comes from the sober assessment of one of the most respected — and U.S.-supportive — strategic thinktanks in Europe. The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), which hosted President Bush during his last visit to London, warned Wednesday that it would take five or six years before the Iraqi security forces being built by the U.S. were close to being capable of imposing and guaranteeing order in Iraq. Until then, Iraqi security would likely remain the responsibility of U.S. forces, meaning continued strain on U.S. military resources and, as things stand, limited prospects of prevailing against the insurgency for the foreseeable future. Indeed, Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick conceded last Friday that the counterinsurgency war in Iraq could last a number of years.

U.S. forces are hitting back, to be sure, having launched a new surprise operation in Western Iraq deploying 1,000 U.S. and Iraqi troops to hit the insurgents in their heartland shortly after the large scale "Operation Matador" that saw a similar number sweeping villages near the Syrian border. And there were reports on a web site associated with al-Qaeda's Iraq chapter announcing that the group's local leader, Musab al-Zarqawi, had been wounded in battle with U.S. forces. But U.S. commanders weren't rushing to confirm those reports, and it's unlikely that even if Zarqawi dies as a result of those reported wounds, the insurgency's trend lines will be reversed. The reason: foreign jihadists are believed to constitute a small, if particularly deadly, fraction of the overall insurgency, which draws most of its support from disaffected Sunni Arabs in Iraq and its leadership from the ranks of the old military and intelligence apparatus.

An IISS expert estimated Tuesday that there were some 1,000 foreign fighters in Iraq, out of a total force of hardcore insurgent fighters believed to number up to 20,000. But the Institute warned that the campaign against the U.S. in Iraq has begun to play the role that the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan once did in creating the first generation of al-Qaeda leaders. Its experts warned that Iraq "could serve as a valuable proving ground for 'blooding' foreign jihadists, and could conceivably form the basis of a second generation of capable al-Qaeda leaders ... and middle management players."

The bulk of the insurgency, however, draws its momentum not from Osama bin Laden's global jihad against America, but from the alienation and hostility toward the new Iraqi order and its U.S. sponsor pervasive in Iraq's once-dominant Sunni Arab minority. It is now conventional wisdom among U.S. officials that the key to defeating the insurgency is giving the Sunnis a greater political stake in the new order. There were positive indicators in that respect last weekend, when some 1,000 Sunni leaders gathered to coordinate their activities in search of a greater political role, particularly in the writing of Iraq's new constitution. The gathering's final statement condemned terror attacks on Iraqi civilians, but proclaimed that "resisting the occupier is a legitimate right." The speaker of Iraq's new parliament, Hajem al-Hasani, was even more explicit, calling for those fighting the U.S. forces to be given a direct political role via the formation of a political wing.

In other words, the Sunnis coming in to the political process may shun Zarqawi, but they appear to accept Baathist-led guerrilla fighters killing U.S. soldiers as part of the Sunni mainstream. Fears of full-blown sectarian warfare between Shiites and Sunnis, meanwhile, have prompted urgent mediation efforts by, among others, the firebrand Shiite maverick Moqtada Sadr. Sadr appears to be using the opportunity to regain political traction against rivals in organizations such as the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which is the most influential party in the ruling coalition of prime minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari. But Sadr's efforts are based on articulating a common nationalist agenda, specifically by demanding a timetable for U.S. withdrawal. It's a canny move for the populist firebrand who has thus far hedged his bets by running candidates in the election but staying outside of the process himself: Thatís because the call for a timetable for U.S. withdrawal had been a key election promise of Jaafari's coalition. The problem is, of course, that the new government is all too aware of its dependence on U.S. forces for its own security and survival, and is unlikely to pursue a timetable for withdrawal as long as they fear the consequences. But that perspective isn't necessarily shared by the new government's own political base, and that's a discrepancy Sadr will seek to work to his own advantage.

While the security realities are increasingly suggesting that the U.S. deployment in Iraq may have to continue for six years or longer, it's far from clear that the new government can sell that idea to its own support base.