Into the Unknown in Iraq

  • Share
  • Read Later

STAYING THE COURSE: U.S. Marines fire mortars at insurgents in Fallujah

Washington may be deeply divided over how the Bush administration took America into Iraq, but there is a remarkable unanimity in support of the President's resolve to finish the job. "Staying the course" has become the watchword of both the White House and the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, as well as Washington's most loyal allies, led by Britain's Tony Blair. The mood has been well summarized by Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic Studies: "It doesn't matter how we got here, we are here. And the priority for success is very high."

But the path to success — even its measure — are becoming increasingly murky, the subject of probing hearings this week by the Senate Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees. Restoring a semblance of security in Iraq is the immediate challenge facing the U.S. and its coalition, which has shrunk over the past week as Spain was joined by Honduras and the Dominican Republic in announcing its troops would be leaving. It's not yet over, but April has been the bloodiest month of the war, with some 93 coalition troops and upward of 1,000 Iraqis killed in clashes in the Sunni Triangle and the Shiite neighborhoods of the capital and some of the southern cities. Wednesday's terror attack in Basra that killed 68 Iraqis underscored the sense of security unraveling signaled by everything from a rash of kidnappings of foreigners to the admission by U.S. commanders that supply lines to Baghdad were being choked by marauding insurgents. Reports that two major U.S. contracting firms involved in restoring electricity supplies were withdrawing because of the security situation underscored the implications of the ongoing violence for the reconstruction program.

The tentative truce in Fallujah brokered by local Sunni leaders appeared to be unraveling, Thursday, as insurgents failed to meet the U.S. demand that they surrender their heavy weapons. But a renewed outbreak of fighting there would likely further polarize Iraqi public opinion against the Coalition. In the Shiite holy city of Najaf, meanwhile, the wanted rebel cleric Moqtada Sadr appeared to be mimicking the Fallujah insurgents' taunting of the U.S. military, breaking off negotiations in the expectation that the Coalition would pay a heavy political price for going into the city with guns blazing.

The decision by the Pentagon to swell the U.S. troop contingent in Iraq to 135,000 and make provision for more underscored the extent to which April's twin insurgent flare-ups had stretched the Coalition's combat capability. Allies willing to commit new troops are increasingly scarce, while U.S. officials report that as much as half of the Iraqi security forces recruited by the U.S. have proven to be unreliable against the insurgents. U.S. viceroy J. Paul Bremer on Tuesday said bluntly that such forces won't be in a position to ensure Iraq's security after the planned transfer of "sovereignty" on June 30. Experts testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this week agreed that the U.S. would likely have to bear the brunt of the military burden in Iraq for the next three to five years. And at considerable cost to the U.S. taxpayer — last year's $87 billion budget for Iraq may be spent by the summer in light of the increases brought on by the insurgency.

Although the change envisaged for June 30 is largely symbolic — an Iraqi caretaker government will be given what Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz this week described as "limited" sovereignty, in that it won't have any control over the security forces operating inside its borders, both Coalition and Iraqi — the hand-over will nonetheless inaugurate a complicated new reality. That's because it involves the U.S. relinquishing formal control over Iraq's political future. Under the plan devised by United Nations envoy Lakhdar Brahimi and welcomed last week by President Bush and Tony Blair, it will be the UN rather than the Coalition Provisional Authority that has the final say in picking an Iraqi caretaker government. Not surprisingly, some elements on the Iraqi Governing Council are resisting the proposal, since it would required that the IGC be dissolved. And some of its more controversial figures, such as Ahmed Chalabi, the Pentagon's favorite Iraqi exile, are unlikely to make it into a UN-picked interim government mandated to run the country for a seven-month period, pending nationwide elections to be held next January.

Managing the interim between June 30 and the election of a legitimate national government promises to be even more complex than the first year of occupation has been. The primary responsibility of the caretaker government will be to organize national elections within seven months in a country wracked by violence, lacking in established political and legal infrastructure and plagued by power rivalries and mutual suspicion between its three main ethnic communities. The most immediate challenge, however, is resolving the obvious conflict that arises between the continuing freedom of action demanded by the U.S. military and the political authority of an Iraqi caretaker government. That's hardly a hypothetical problem, as the current standoffs at Fallujah and Najaf show: Iraqi Governing Council leaders, including one or two tapped for top positions in the caretaker government, objected furiously to U.S. tactics at Fallujah and against the Shiite supporters of the cleric Moqtada Sadr. The fact that the U.S. military backed off in both Najaf and Fallujah to allow Iraqi politicians space to try and resolve those standoffs through negotiations is telling. While the U.S. military is following the natural instinct of an occupying army to establish its authority and protect its forces by seeking to crush any sign of armed resistance, the Iraqi politicians are taking a more political view — while the majority in both the Shiite and Sunni community don't directly support the insurgents, they have, nonetheless, been antagonized by the occupation. Moderate Iraqi leaders working with the Coalition have warned that heavy-handed military actions, such as those at Fallujah and in East Baghdad, are more likely to inflame the situation than to achieve stability.

Speaking to Wolfowitz at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Tuesday, Republican senator John Warner pointed out a "basic conflict of interests" between granting sovereignty to a government, on the one hand, and giving a foreign military power absolute freedom of action within its borders. "We've seen recently in the Fallujah operations where there's been some honest differences of opinion between members of the Iraqi Governing Council, the current governing body, and our military commanders as to the timing, the quantum and otherwise the use of force," said Warner.

Wolfowitz answered by citing Afghanistan, where interim President Hamid Karzai had on a number of occasions sharply criticized U.S. counterinsurgency actions. "And the answer there is you have got to be prepared to discuss, to negotiate, and also at the end of the day, to use the authority that is granted to us (to act independently)," Wolfowitz said. But the analogy may provide cold comfort: Karzai is far more openly dependent on the power and patronage of the U.S. than any Iraqi leadership can afford to be, and only the most unyielding optimist would imagine that Afghanistan is on track to be anything but a perennially fragile Western protectorate any time soon. So while Washington remains unshakably resolved to stay the course in Iraq, the course itself remains far from clear.