Nine months ago, when U.S. cruise missiles and precision bombs began raining down on Baghdad in the war's first salvos, the United States might never have imagined where it would be today -- mired in a bloody quagmire, with no easy exit in sight. Despite new plans to hand over power next year, Washington is facing a hardening guerrilla movement. As RFE/RL reports, if Iraq was a "long, hard slog" in 2003, next year promises to be no different.
Washington, 12 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- It was a sunny day, the first of May. Decked out as a "Top Gun" war pilot, President George W. Bush rode in the cockpit of a Navy S-3B Viking, landing to a hero's welcome on an aircraft carrier off the coast of California.
Surrounded by sailors just back from the war, Bush told the nation that America's liberation of Iraq had been achieved, just six weeks after the war's first shots.
"Officers and sailors of the USS Abraham Lincoln, my fellow Americans: Major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed," Bush said.
But in the following eight months, some 200 U.S. soldiers, almost 40 coalition troops, dozens of international aid workers -- including top UN envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello -- and scores of Iraqi civilians have died in attacks by insurgents. It has become clear that, while deposed President Saddam Hussein's regime may have been toppled, the war itself is far from over.
Meanwhile, U.S.-led arms inspectors have yet to find any weapons of mass destruction. The Bush administration has had to face accusations it manipulated intelligence to sell the public on invading Iraq.
Now, as Washington faces a treacherous new year in Iraq, public support is at an all-time low, jeopardizing Bush's chances of winning re-election next November.
Bethsheba Crocker is a postconflict reconstruction expert with Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies. Asked to sum up America's feelings on the war at this moment, she tells RFE/RL, "I think the concern is that if there continues to be a heavy degree of U.S. casualties in Iraq, as we've seen, then I think the pressures will just mount in an election year on both sides, and we may see increased calls for just pulling out of Iraq if the situation really starts to even worsen."
Many analysts say that because the administration does not want to appear to be in a quagmire before the election, it has already decided to extricate itself from Iraq.
Last month, Bush announced a major shift in policy -- the U.S. will hand over power to Iraqis by 1 July. Previously, the administration had insisted that a constitution be written before Iraqi sovereignty could be restored, a process that could take up to two years.
The move was welcomed by many in the international community -- in particular, France, which had long argued for a swift return of power to the Iraqi people.
But it also put into question the administration's goal of establishing a peaceful, democratic Iraq that could be the first step in a wave of reform to sweep the Middle East. That was always expected to be a long-term project that would require American staying power.
Faced with a growing resistance movement, Washington is responding with an Israeli-style counterinsurgency campaign in which American Special Forces are seeking to root out guerrillas.
Kenneth Allard, a former military intelligence officer and now an analyst, remains unconvinced.
"We can certainly look at how the Israelis organize their counterinsurgency actions and tactics. But that's as far as it goes, because the whole point of this is the fact that what you have to have is a strategy. And I'm not convinced yet the U.S. does," Allard said.
Allard tells RFE/RL he believes Washington is caught between diametrically opposed objectives -- a desire to win, and the "need" to get out as soon as possible.
Under the current U.S. plan, power will gradually return to Iraqis through a process beginning next spring, when local councils elect delegates to form a provisional assembly, which in turn will appoint a transitional government by the end of June. The assembly would also appoint a committee to draft a constitution, whose passage by referendum would lead to democratic elections.
After the June handover, the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority will cease to exist. U.S. forces will remain in Iraq, but their numbers are likely to go down.
Allard believes such a strategy is ambiguous about America's intentions in Iraq after June, while selling short the security challenges that remain.
"That very ambiguity is at the heart of what faces us right today, because we really find ourselves in a bit of a quandary as to how long we intend to stay. Second only to that is what resources we intend to commit. I just simply have to tell you that that falls far short of the usual requirement in a war, which is to obtain an absolutely unambiguous victory and to define the terms accordingly," Allard said.
Robert Hutchinson of "Jane's Defence Weekly" in London says the key to the U.S. counterinsurgency effort lies in getting the right intelligence. But he tells RFE/RL that the battle for the hearts and minds of Iraqis may be lost if Washington takes such risks as relying on questionable intelligence or pursues a counterterrorism campaign in which more innocent civilians become victims.
"It is going to be a public affairs war," he says. "It's going to be hostilities fought on uneven ground because the insurgents will try all they can to wrong-foot the coalition forces and cause incidents which will reflect badly on them, to try and engender public support for their cause."
Meanwhile, the Bush administration appears to be exacerbating its rift with European allies France and Germany. Washington has excluded them -- and Russia -- from taking part in bidding for reconstruction contracts because they did not help in the war. At the same time, Bush has asked them to consider forgiving billions of dollars in Iraqi debt, suggesting that if they do, they may be let in on the contracts.
Despite the administration's best-laid plans for Iraq, analysts say they will be difficult to follow through on. Already this month, half the members in the first new Iraqi army battalion resigned because they were unhappy with their terms of employment.
Frederick Barton is a former deputy UN high commissioner for refugees. An expert in postconflict reconstruction, Barton was asked by RFE/RL if power can realistically be handed over to Iraqis next year if security remains poor.
"It's not a place that you would want to be a practicing politician in. You wouldn't want to hold any responsibility with the thought that your next step could be your last one, and that's an awful lot to ask of everybody. Heroism is preferable in small doses. And we're asking that of a whole lot of people there. So until it gets safe, the answer is probably no," Barton said.
If anything is certain in Iraq in 2004, it's that things will continue to be a "long, hard slog" -- just as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, in a moment of candor, said it would be.
Copyright (c) 2003. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org
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