Iraq: Good News vs. Bad News

  • Share
  • Read Later

Making his case: Bush at a National Guard base in New Hampshire

Six months after U.S. forces took control of Baghdad, President Bush is working hard to convince Americans that things in Iraq are "a lot better than you probably think." The White House has launched an aggressive PR campaign to promulgate a more positive view. But accounts of emergent local commerce and the introduction of a new currency won't necessarily quiet concerns among ordinary Americans and their elected representatives over the costs of the war. The tally: 170,000 military reserves are currently on active duty, and a further 15,000 were recently mobilized, with soldiers looking at year-long tours of duty with no early end in sight. Based on current trends that show no sign of abating, up to six of the soldiers deployed in Iraq will be killed each week, and around 40 will be wounded. Once Congress approves the $87 billion Iraq supplemental budget requested by the White House, the cost to the American taxpayer of remaking Iraq will have reached $166 billion.

That may be why an increasingly important component of the White House PR effort is talking up the prospects for lightening the military and financial load on the U.S. and of achieving an exit from Iraq while leaving behind a decent outcome. But the administration's message is facing a daily battering from events on the ground. In the past eight days alone, 10 U.S. soldiers have been killed in a number of separate ambushes; mortar shells were fired on Iraq's foreign ministry in Baghdad; a truck bomb killed nine people at an Iraqi police station in the capital; a car bomb killed another nine people at a hotel used by Iraqi Governing Council and coalition officials; a Spanish intelligence official was assassinated outside his residence; and a car bomb was detonated at the Turkish embassy in Baghdad. That attack, of course, may have come in response to one of the most important bits of good news for the coalition forces in months: Turkey has agreed to garrison up to 20,000 troops in the Sunni triangle, potentially relieving an entire U.S. division in the sector that has been the bloodiest for the Americans.

But every silver lining has a cloud. The U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council is staunchly opposed to the deployment of the Turks, on the grounds that all of Iraq's neighbors have their own agendas — indeed, Turkish officials have made no bones about the fact that their decision to send troops, which cuts against the tide of Turkish public opinion, is based primarily on Turkey's desire to have a hand in shaping post-Saddam Iraq. Although U.S. administrator Paul Bremer has sought to assuage the fears of the IGC — particularly its Kurdish members, who see the Turks as threatening their desired autonomy — the Council remains opposed and has won the support of the Arab League. Although the Turks are also Sunni Muslims, there's little reason to suspect that the insurgents will refrain from attacking them — there's no love lost between Iraq's Sunnis and the Turkish military, especially when they're reprising their centuries-old role as occupiers of Iraq. A Turkish deployment will certainly ease the load on the U.S. military, but at a political cost of antagonizing the Kurds and undermining the standing of the IGC.

Inviting in the Turks may be less than ideal, but it's not as if the U.S. has a wide array of choices. The hoped-for divisions from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh have not materialized, and South Korea hasn't yet committed. There's less hope now that a new UN Security Council resolution will scare up more troops from reluctant allies. Still, Washington has submitted a third draft resolution in the hope of finding Security Council consensus. The new version accommodates some European concerns by requiring the IGC to establish a timetable for elections and a return to self-rule, although it doesn't address the objections to previous drafts on the role accorded to the UN.

The primary motivation for the new Security Council resolution may be financial. The IMF and World Bank have calculated that Iraq's reconstruction over the next four years will require $55 billion in aid, and the Bush administration — having earmarked $20 billion of its latest $87 billion Iraq budget for reconstruction — has been looking to the Madrid donor conference scheduled to begin on October 23 for substantial pledges of support. So far, however, the picture looks mixed: Japan has pledged $5 billion and Britain almost $1 billion, but Canada and the EU, between them, are good for only half a billion. The administration is hoping that a new UN resolution may help loosen the purse strings, although the constraints on many of the donor nations may be economic as much as political.

The key to the U.S. exit strategy in Iraq — and the current UN resolution — is completing Iraq's political transformation by restoring sovereignty to an elected Iraqi government. To achieve that, a new constitution must be adopted, and elections held — a process for which the U.S. is setting an ambitious timetable. Secretary of State Colin Powell recently suggested that the IGC should finalize a new constitution within six months, but Iraqis were quick to dismiss Powell's timetable as hopelessly optimistic. Some of Iraq's most important leaders — the moderate Shiite clerics at Najaf — have insisted that an Iraqi constitution can be drawn up only by an elected body, not by the IGC, which was handpicked by Bremer.

Shiite religious and communal leaders are often violently divided over their attitudes to working with the Americans and over what role their religion should play in government, but there's broad agreement among them that a new order in Iraq should reflect their demographic dominance: Shiites comprise upward of 60 percent of the population, but they have historically been dominated by the Sunni minority comprising around 15 percent. The concern to ensure their dominance may explain the insistence by even moderate Shiites that the new order be shaped by a democratically elected body. And, of course, many Sunnis are unhappy about the prospect of losing their relatively privileged status in a democratic order — a factor that certainly contributes to a measure of support, or at least tolerance for the anti-American insurgency in the Sunni Triangle.

The most troubling recent development is the emergence of a Shiite challenge to the U.S. The firebrand young cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose followers are particularly powerful in the slums of eastern Baghdad, is increasingly basing his own bid for power and influence among the Shiites on a strategy of confrontation with the U.S. Last Friday he declared his intention to form his own government, and he has called for the formation of a religious army — his forces clashed violently with U.S. soldiers in Baghdad last weekend, after which his supporters warned the U.S. to keep its troops out of the eastern Baghdad slum known as Sadr City. U.S. commanders have been reluctant to move directly against Moqtada al-Sadr, fearing that this would stir up a confrontation with his supporters. But the radicals are clearly staking out their turf as the political day of reckoning approaches, and were involved in violent clashes with supporters of the moderate clerics at Najaf on Tuesday. A series of roadside bomb attack on British forces in Basra in recent days also suggests an emerging Shiite militancy.

There's no question that an overwhelming majority of Iraqis are pleased to be rid of Saddam Hussein. A Gallup Poll published Tuesday suggests that 71 percent of Baghdad residents don't want the U.S. forces to leave in a hurry (although, curiously enough, 36 percent of respondents in the same poll believed that attacks on those forces were justified in some instances). And although only 42 percent of Americans polled in the latest CNN/Gallup survey agree with the President's assessment that things are going at least moderately well in Iraq, his overall job approval ratings are slowly climbing again. But in the pursuit of the security, political and economic conditions that allow for a U.S. exit, many dark days may still lie ahead.