Making it Safe to Leave Iraq

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Iraqi women survey the damage from a car-bomb attack in the Baghdad suburb of Khadra

Iraq kids are going back to school. Local councils are being elected, and local security forces are being trained. The power supply is improving, and buyers and sellers in Iraq's lively marketplaces can now conduct their transactions with banknotes free of the scowling visage of the tyrant Saddam. That was the picture Deputy Defense Secretary had hoped to show a skeptical American media corps during a PR tour of Iraq last weekend, before insurgents made a mockery of his efforts by slamming rockets into his hotel in the most heavily-guarded part of Baghdad. But that attack, and the carnage wrought on Monday by four suicide bombers in the capital, underline a simple truth: The issue dwarfing all others in Iraq, right now is security. Resolving the security crisis remains the key to the success or failure of the U.S.-authored transition, and on that front, right now, the picture is not exactly encouraging.

President Bush prefers to see the latest wave of attacks as the actions of men made desperate by U.S. progress in Iraq. "The more successful we are on the ground, the more these killers will react," the President said Monday. But it remains to be seen whether Iraqis — and Americans — are ready to embrace the idea that the deteriorating security situation is a symptom of progress. And the fact that the scale, frequency and tactical sophistication of the attacks is increasing suggests that the Iraqi insurgents have grown in confidence and organizational ability in the six months since Baghdad fell. The daily average number of attacks on U.S. forces has risen from 15-20 in the late summer to around 30 today, and U.S. casualty figures are going up as well. And the high profile strikes on targets as diverse as the UN and the International Committee of the Red Cross to the embassies of Jordan and Turkey reveal a clear-eyed political agenda on the part of their authors: To spread fear among those inclined to work with the U.S. in the hope of sabotaging the reconstruction effort, and panicking ordinary Iraqis by showing that the U.S. is unable to protect them.

While little is known about the inner workings of the Iraqi insurgency, it's widely believed that there are a number of different elements at work whose actions may not necessarily be coordinated. The guerrilla-style operations targeting U.S. forces — some of which have used relatively sophisticated explosive devices, mortars and RPGs as well as tactics that bespeak some combat training, are believed to involve elements of the military and security services of the old regime, as well as Iraqi and foreign Arab volunteers. U.S. officials claim that one of the men involved in the latest wave of suicide attacks carried a Syrian passport, suggesting involvement by foreign jihadis. Some analysts suspect the suicide tactics, mass-casualty attacks on "soft" targets and synchronicity of the latest wave of bombings suggests the involvement of al-Qaeda or similarly inspired jihadists. Al-Qaeda has certainly urged its supporters to flock to Iraq to fight the Americans, and hundreds of foreign fighters are believed to have heeded such calls. But it's far from clear how such elements may be interacting with local insurgents, and even signature al-Qaeda tactics may well be borrowed by locals. Al-Qaeda operatives in a "jihad" theater as fertile as Iraq would also be inclined to reproduce themselves by sharing their grisly skills with like-minded locals.

Of even greater concern may be what the presence of foreign fighters says about the political environment in Iraq: After all, foreign jihadists wouldn't last hours if the local population was hostile to them and trusted the Americans to provide security if they blew the whistle. Plainly, there is an element of the Iraqi population willing to provide shelter and succor to foreigners that have come to fight the U.S.

For now the insurgency remains confined largely to the Sunni triangle stretching north from Baghdad — but its theater of operations includes the capital, home to almost one quarter of Iraq's population and its locus of power. And it plainly enjoys, if not the support then at least the consent of a sizable portion of the Sunni population. Although there have been attacks on coalition forces in Shiite neighborhoods in Baghdad and some of the southern cities, even the most radical element of the Shiite population has refrained from urging violence against the U.S., waiting out the political process, which, if it is democratic, will grant them the dominant political role commensurate with their demographic majority. Even those most inclined to pursue a path of confrontation with the U.S. are unlikely, given their historical suffering at the hands of Saddam's regime, to make common cause with the Sunni insurgents.

Still, the fact that the insurgency has sustained and even expanded itself over the six months since Baghdad has been in U.S. hands is cause for concern. The security problem imperils the reconstruction process, whether in the form of pipeline sabotage that stops Iraq exporting oil or in driving out aid organizations and scaring off investors, which slows efforts to reverse the 60 percent unemployment in Iraq, which in turn maintains the pool of disaffection in which the insurgents can recruit. And if they're able to provoke the U.S. into striking out more forcefully against an enemy hiding in plain sight, they could turn more neutral Iraqis against the occupation. Even the terror attacks have that effect, with numerous reports from reporters on the ground suggesting traumatized Iraqis are often inclined to blame the U.S. for failing to protect them from such attacks — or even for being the cause of such attacks.

U.S. officials are quick to speak out, branding such attacks as aimed at the Iraqi people. Unfortunately, such sentiments don't carry as much weight inside Iraq when they come from Paul Bremer or Don Rumsfeld, and — as Bremer has complained — there's a conspicuous absence of an Iraqi voice speaking out forcefully, publicly and consistently denouncing such attacks. Indeed, the response to the security crisis by the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council has been to urge the U.S. to transfer more security and political control to Iraqis, although their internal divisions are reflected in competing visions on what form this would take: Some call for a revival of the Iraqi army disbanded by Bremer; others want a greater role for militias associated with former opposition groups. But the Bush administration remains wary of speeding a hand-over to the IGC, fearing it may not yet be up to the task and that without a strong U.S. presence Iraq could be plunged into a chaotic armed struggle for power among a wide array of factions.

While some on the IGC, as well as traditional U.S. allies in the Arab world and Europe, have warned that the occupation itself contributes to the security problem, the security problem also suggests that there'll be no early end to the occupation, either. Pentagon plans to begin drawing down the U.S. troop complement in Iraq by next summer, on current indicators, looks more than a little optimistic. As Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld put it in a recent memo to colleagues leaked last week to the media, what lies ahead for the U.S. in Iraq is a "long, hard slog."