Why U.S. Soldiers Aren't Leaving Iraq Yet

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U.S. soldiers search the area after a Rocket Propelled Grenade attack in Baghdad Monday

Last Monday soldiers of the 3rd Infantry Division in Iraq were told by their commanders that they wouldn't be going home in September, as expected. Their tour had been extended by two or three months, at the least. 3rd ID commander Major General Buford Blount had already emailed their families the bad news, blaming "uncertainty of the situation in Iraq and the recent increase in attacks on coalition forces." The groan was palpable, with the soldiers and their families telling reporters — sometimes in terms distinctly unflattering to the Pentagon — that it was time for the unit that had suffered the most casualties in the war to go home.

Not for the first time in this conflict, the office of the Defense Secretary sought to soften the blow. Secretary Rumsfeld's Chief of Staff, Larry Di Rita, insisted on Tuesday that the September return date was still on the cards for the 3ID, but in contrast to Blount's email, Di Rita was somewhat evasive: "Gen. Blount is — as we all are, concerned about being able to give some definition to what the families know," Di Rita told the Army newspaper Stars and Stripes. "Because plans are still being worked out, I think he is trying to keep everybody understanding that when we say that it lacks specific definition, it lacks specific definition for what he wants to be able to tell families. The details are still being worked through."

Centcom then issued a statement saying it still intended to bring home the troops of the 3rd ID, "pending international or U.S. replacement units," adding that "as always, the security situation could affect deployments and redeployments.''

International replacements are proving to be something of a problem: Thus far, the U.S. has managed to sign up two contingents, one comprising some 9,200 soldiers led by Poland and composed of smallish detachments from Ukraine, Bulgaria, Hungary, Spain, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Romania, Mongolia, Fiji, the Dominican Republic and others. Britain will lead a second detachment composed of Western European NATO members such as Italy and the Netherlands. The operative word is small: While Spain is offering 1,300 troops and Italy up to 3,000, Lithuania will send 43, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia about 30, Kazakhstan 25, and so on. The Pentagon had hoped India would would supply 17,000 of its own troops to lead a third division, but India has declined, joining France and Germany in insisting that their forces could serve only under UN command and mandate. And given the fact that U.S. relations with Turkey are at a 50-year low in the wake of the war — particularly following the arrest by U.S. forces of ten Turkish commandos in northern Iraq ten days ago — the Pentagon is having to face the reality that many of the armies most competent to help in Iraq are simply unavailable. The addition of small numbers of troops from the old Warsaw Pact countries may ease some of the burden on U.S. forces in Iraq, but it's unlikely to allow the U.S. to draw down its own troop commitment there — to put it bluntly, it will take the combat power of the Americans, rather than the Latvians and Fijians, to wage the counterinsurgency war.

Centcom commander General John Abizaid has made clear that current troop levels will have to be maintained, and that those sent home would have to be replaced in Iraq by fresh U.S. troops from elsewhere. Rumsfeld even conceded during his testimony on Capitol Hill, last week, that it was possible that the U.S. could be forced to increase its deployment. Hardly surprising, there's mounting pressure in the Senate for the Bush administration to bury its differences with the French and other NATO members, and negotiate arrangements under which they could serve.

If the extended troop deployments caused families back home to wince, the cost of the operation may be having a similar impact on Capitol Hill. Having told legislators in April that Iraq would cost $2 billion a month, Rumsfeld last week admitted the real monthly cost was proving to be closer to $4 billion — and, of course, the likely duration of the mission now seems considerably greater than Pentagon planners had envisaged before the war. Taken together with the $1 billion a month to keep some 10,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan (without whose presence the Karzai government is unlikely to survive), that's an annual bill of $60 billion — about what the first Gulf War cost. The difference, of course, is that in 1991, the Saudis and Japan picked up the tab; this time it'll be the U.S. taxpayer. And coming on top of this week's announcement by the administration of an all-time high in the budget deficit, the administration's goals of remaking the Middle East and of shrinking the U.S. government seem increasingly incompatible.

The qualifier in the Centcom statement about a September return date for the 3rd ID may be even more important: "As always, the security situation could affect deployments and redeployments.'' Far from abating, the ongoing guerrilla campaign against U.S. forces and their indigenous supporters in Iraq appears to be intensifying. On Wednesday, a day when the U.S. had been on maximum alert because it marked the anniversary of Saddam's rise to power, one U.S. soldier was killed and five were wounded in a series of attacks around the country, and a pro-U.S. mayor in western Iraq was assassinated. The daily average number of attacks on U.S. forces is now 12, and the sophistication of the weaponry is increasing. A number of mortar attacks have been reported in recent weeks, and on Wednesday a surface-to-air missile was fired at a U.S. transport plane landing in Baghdad. (It missed.)

Reports from the ground in Iraq suggest that the daily attacks combined with the open-ended nature of the mission, the inhospitable climate and the widespread hostility towards U.S. forces is taking its toll on morale. That much was clear from TV footage of disgruntled U.S. troops in Iraq sounding off against the Defense Secretary. And sapping morale is, of course, a primary objective of those waging the guerrilla conflict.

The good news is that the U.S. has begun the process of inaugurating a new post-Saddam political order. The governing council of 25 Iraqis handpicked by Washington's viceroy, Paul Bremer, has begun meeting, and set itself an ambitious agenda — including moving quickly to claim Iraq's seat at the United Nations. (But with the council picked by the Americans rather than the Iraqis, and legal sovereignty currently residing, at least temporarily, in the hands of the occupying power, the Security Council may not be in a hurry to accept the credentials of the governing council.) Some Iraqis have welcomed the creation of the council as an important first step to restoring their sovereignty, even if they know little about the 25 people selected to represent them. Others, however, dismiss the body as simply an extension of the U.S. occupation. These include, of course, former Baathists and their supporters and also Islamist elements among the Sunni Arab population, but more worryingly, the increasingly militant Sadrist movement among the Shiite majority. While the Council has a Shiite majority and includes the two longest-established Shiite Islamist parties, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and the Dawa party (both of which waged underground war on Saddam from Iran), the followers of young Moqtada al-Sadr — who control the Shiite ghettoes of east Baghdad — have rejected involvement in political bodies created by the Americans, and are challenging the other factions for supremacy among Shiite clerics, in a battle that has the potential to turn violent.

As much as the council may be in a hurry to take the reins of government, Bremer is not rushing. The council has yet to establish its legitimacy in the eyes of ordinary Iraqis, and doing so will depend on its coalition sponsors delivering the security and normalcy that has eluded so many Iraqis since the war. As they assist and advise the occupation authority's management of these challenges, Bremer also wants them to begin the process of drawing up a new constitution, following which free elections could be held. After that, he says, the coalition's work will be done and the troops can go home. But simply drawing up the constitution is expected to take the best part of a year and elections would presumably come only some time after that — assuming the security and political challenges are tamped down. A tour of duty Iraq, in other words, may soon become part of life for many in the U.S. military for some time to come.