The High Cost of Help in Iraq

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Iraqis look for bodies after a bomb explosion at Imam Ali shrine in Najaf

The scale of the military and financial commitment required to stabilize and rebuild Iraq has prompted the realization in Washington that the U.S. needs UN support even more in peacetime than it did in going to war. The ongoing security crisis in Iraq was underscored by a deadly bomb blast during Friday prayers at one of Shiite Islam's holiest shrines, the Imam Ali mosque in Najaf. Among the more than 80 people killed was Ayatollah Mohammed Bakr al-Hakim, head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq — the most important Shiite group participating in the Iraqi Governing Council appointed by U.S. viceroy Paul Bremer.

Who was responsible? It?s not yet known, but the terror attack on Hakim's prayer service certainly benefits the former Baathists fighting to sabotage the political and economic reconstruction under the U.S. tutelage, and they would likely top the list of suspects. No matter who carried out the attack, it's a relatively safe bet that Shiites on the street will blame the U.S. for failing to ensure security. Getting Hakim out of the way also strengthens the hand of the young firebrand Moqtada al-Sadr, who is challenging for power among the Shiite clerics by pursuing a more hostile line toward the occupying forces. Removing Hakim also strikes a blow at the IGC — the Ayatollah's sanction would have been important in establishing the body's legitimacy. Ironically — and not necessarily coincidentally — last week's bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad killed Sergio Vieira De Mello, the UN special envoy who had persuaded the leaders of SCIRI to join Bremer's Council. Now a second voice supporting participation in the body has been silenced. The Baathists certainly have a vested interest in ensuring the IGC's failure — after all, they're fighting an insurgency against foreign occupation, but if the IGC takes root as the basis of a new Iraqi government, those wanting to fight on would be increasingly isolated.

Friday's bombing in Najaf underscores the pressures mounting on the U.S. The Pentagon announced earlier this week that the total number of U.S. personnel killed since President Bush declared an end to hostilities on May 1 had passed the number killed during the war. The 65 postwar U.S. combat casualties have come in ones and twos; the incident report for Wednesday, for example, is typical: One U.S. soldier killed and three wounded by an improvised explosive device in Fallujah; another soldier killed in an ambush on a convoy in Baghdad and two of his colleagues wounded, four soldiers wounded in two separate ambushes in Baqubah and Ramadi. The U.S. is facing a guerrilla insurgency capable of mounting multiple simultaneous attacks in different locations, high profile terror attacks that spread panic in the civilian population and systematic sabotage attacks on oil, water and electricity supplies.

U.S. officials insist that no further American troops are required in Iraq, but that's simply because they believe the mission will be best served by drawing the necessary reinforcements from abroad, particularly from Muslim nations such as Turkey and Pakistan. U.S. commanders have made clear that even if the U.S. manages to attract the desired 40,000 or 50,000 international troops, that won't necessarily mean a draw-down of U.S. force levels in Iraq. Until now, Washington's request for help from the more robust, self-sufficient and experienced armies of India, Pakistan, Turkey, France, Russia and Germany have been rebuffed on the grounds that these countries are unable to contribute troops to what is currently, in legal terms, a U.S.-British occupation of Iraq. That's why the administration is currently seeking a creative formula that would win UN authorization for an international force that would nonetheless remain under U.S. command. But while such an arrangement may accommodate some of the concerns raised by the reluctant nations, the more important challenge the U.S. will face is the demand to begin ceding its political authority in Baghdad. UN member states are keenly aware that the current occupation is unpopular among Iraqis and in the wider Arab and Muslim world: Even the members of the IGC are unhappy about the open-ended nature of U.S.-British control. "Iraq is under occupation," current IGC president Ibrahim Jafari said on Wednesday. "We want to do all we can to reduce the time period for ending the occupation."

The key issue for many UN member states is restoring Iraq's sovereignty by putting Iraqis themselves back in control. That goal is shared by the U.S., although many of its allies — including Britain — have argued that the United Nations has more legitimacy than the occupying powers to oversee such a transition. Legitimacy is a growing concern given the security situation in Iraq, and even the leaders of Bremer's handpicked Council appear to be trying to establish their own legitimacy among ordinary Iraqis by distancing themselves from the occupation.

The IGC, of course, suffers from the fact that it was handpicked by Bremer, and even then its internal divisions are such that it could only agree to a presidency rotated on a monthly basis, and has yet to appoint a cabinet six weeks after its inception. Until such time as the IGC or some more directly representative Iraqi body offers a viable option for transferring sovereign authority to Iraqis, the price of UN Security Council endorsement of an international security force is likely to be putting the UN in charge of the political transition process — as is the case in Afghanistan. It may also require setting a timetable for a hand-over to a representative Iraqi authority.

President Bush warned a year ago that the UN that it would make itself irrelevant if it failed to support military action against Iraq; going back to the international body for help means eating crow. But besides the need for military assistance, an even more pressing impetus for compromise with international allies may be the financial burden of managing postwar Iraq. It can't have pleased the Bush administration that in a week when the Washington was scolded by the IMF for projecting for next year a record deficit of $480 billion, Ambassador Bremer told the Washington Post that Iraq would next year need "several tens of billions of dollar" in foreign aid. White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan retorted that the Bush administration would ask for more money from Congress to fund Bremer's mission, but only once it has "responsible numbers." Still, it was reported that Bremer would need $3 billion in hard cash immediately from Congress, with more to come.

As the legal occupying powers, the U.S. and Britain are responsible for sustaining Iraq, and the military mission alone is costing the U.S. taxpayer $1 billion a week. Bremer's Coalition Provisional Authority has already burned through most of the funds made available from frozen Iraqi bank accounts in the U.S. and its own budget projections for next year are deep in the red following the failure of Iraq's oil industry to perform to expectation. Iraq is currently pumping around half of the prewar output of 3 million barrels a day, and its exports have twice been disrupted by sabotage attacks on the pipeline to Turkey. Oil exports may not be in a position to underwrite reconstruction costs for quite some time, and by some estimates rehabilitating the industry will require upward of $35 billion of investment. More immediate priorities that affect the security situation, such as the need to get all Iraqis a stable supply of drinking water and electricity, also come with a heavy price tag: $16 billion over four years for water, and $15 billion over the same period for electricity.

The U.S. needs troops to help create a secure environment for reconstruction to proceed, and money to help underwrite it. An international donor's conference is schedule for Madrid late in October, when some 45 countries are expected to make commitments to help share the burden. But earlier indications from such key potential donors, such as the European Union and the World Bank, suggest that financial aid, too, might be conditional on some changes in the political arrangements in Baghdad — Washington might struggle to convince some key donors to make commitments that might be seen as underwriting an occupation.

President Bush this week sounded a resolute vow to stay the course in Iraq, for years if necessary. But the financial and military burden of post-Saddam Iraq certainly raises the pressure on the administration to seek new agreements via the UN with allies currently reluctant to commit lives and treasure. Which suggests that this Fall, like the last one, will see the Bush administration arm-wrestling at the Security Council over its plans for Iraq.