One, Two, Many Messes
the United States does not look quite yet like the "pitiful, helpless
giant" that tortured Richard Nixon's imagination during the Vietnam
War, the past week's events seem to have moved it very much in that
week, which was supposed to culminate in celebrations of the first
anniversary of Baghdad's "liberation" by U.S. forces, ended instead
with Marines engaged on several fronts in precisely the kind of
urban warfare that they blissfully avoided a year ago, with U.S.-trained
Iraqi police and security forces deserting their posts in the face
of insurgent challenges, the seizure of at least a half-dozen foreign
hostages and the assumptions that underlay a year's worth of "nation-building"
in Iraq in a shambles.
a mess," became the dominant refrain when Washington cafe and subway
conversations turned to Iraq this week, as the impression that the
administration of President George W Bush was taken completely by
surprise by the latest turn of events appeared to take hold among
the city's residents. Much to the administration's chagrin, "Vietnam"
was the most frequently cited metaphor on television.
right-wing Georgia Republican and Bush arch-loyalist Senator Saxby
Chambliss confessed Wednesday, the administration "underestimated
just how difficult and complex the job in Iraq would be."
just last Sunday, some 42 US soldiers have been killed in fighting
in the "Sunni Triangle," the Shia south and in Baghdad
itself. Hundreds of Iraqis have also been killed, including, according
to latest reports, as many as 450 in the besieged Sunni city of
observers believe that the ragtag militias and gangs that have taken
on US forces pose a serious threat to Washington's vast military
might. (And, in a familiar Vietnam-era refrain, US officers insisted
that they had won every engagement with the insurgents.)
by the end of the week, it was clear that military power was, in
another Vietnam metaphor, not only losing "hearts and minds,"
but actually building a stronger insurgency.
to that effect became clear by midweek when the media reported Baghdad
residents Shia as well as Sunni lining up to donate
blood and relief supplies for Fallujah, the center of Sunni resistance
to the occupation since 13 of its residents were killed by US soldiers
during a demonstration almost exactly one year ago.
political implications, both at home and in Iraq, of the week's
fighting and the shattered illusions that it revealed are
begin with, the administration has long insisted that, with the
help of 20,000 troops from the "coalition of the willing,"
and the presence of nearly 80,000 Iraqi police recruited and deployed
by the occupation over the past year, it could easily afford to
reduce its own military presence in Iraq from 135,000 to 110,000
with the uprising by Moqtada Sadr and his Mahdi Army in Baghdad
and several southern cities, those plans appear to be out the window.
challenged by the insurgents, most of Iraq's new security forces
either joined them or went home while, aside from Britain, the "coalition
of the willing," already anticipating the loss of 1,300 Spanish
troops due to last month's elections in Spain, looked shakier than
losing one soldier, the Ukrainian contingent in Kut retreated to
a more secure base (leaving its arsenal to be seized by the Mahdi
Army), while several other national contingents confined their troops
to base or simply got out of the way.
net result is that US withdrawal plans have been effectively suspended,
and pressure is building on the administration to send as many as
30,000 more troops to bolster a force that suddenly looked beleaguered
uniformed military does not speak out publicly, but the generals
are outraged," reported
columnist Robert Novak, who has close ties to the Pentagon brass.
even if the administration agrees to add troops, analysts agree
that, given the drastically stepped-up deployments of forces since
9/11 and the already greater-than-anticipated use and poor morale
of the army and reserves deployed to Iraq over the past year, they
might be very difficult to muster. "Imperial overstretch is
a very real factor at this point," one official told IPS this
any increase in troops risks being seen not only as an unprecedented
admission by Bush of fallibility and poor planning, but also as
an "escalation" in the war, a definite no-no for an administration
that is already consumed with avoiding anything evoking Vietnam
less than seven months before the election.
by the Pew Research Center showed that approval of Bush's performance
on Iraq has plunged from 59 percent in January to 40 percent early
this week and that 57 percent of the public now believe he has no
plan for how to proceed.
a sense that things are perhaps spinning out of control, and that's
a very dangerous perception," Carroll Doherty, the Pew report's
the Christian Science Monitor.
second cherished illusion that has now been shattered is that Sadr
was a marginal figure within the Shiite community whose leadership
remained committed if warily to a U.S.-controlled transition,
so long as it believed the eventual outcome would reward and empower
the community's majority status.
might indeed have been marginal, but the occupation's own ham-handedness
in first closing his newspaper and then arresting a senior aide
at the same time it prepared an attack on Fallujah has clearly
empowered him and the anti-occupation cause for which he, and Fallujah,
week long, administration and occupation officials insisted that
Sadr and his militia, estimated at just a few thousand poorly trained
men, could be isolated from the Shia leadership. But as the days
passed and the insurgency in the south spread, it became increasingly
clear that the opposite was taking place.
only did Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, on whom US hopes for Shia
acquiescence in the transitional process had increasingly been riding,
fail to denounce Sadr, but members of rival militias began rallying
to his cause, according to published reports.
photos of Sadr began appearing in Sunni parts of Baghdad and in
and around Fallujah amid reports of growing cooperation between
Sunni and Shia rebels that, for US forces, is the most worrisome
development to date.
have to work very hard to ensure that (Sunni-Shia cooperation) remains
at the tactical level (only)," Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the
occupation's top commander, told reporters Thursday.
unintended result (of cracking down on Sadr the same week as the
attack on Fallujah) was that America finally brought Shiites and
Sunnis together in opposing occupation," noted David
Ignatius, a Post columnist who has generally supported US
actions in Iraq.
degree to which the occupation's crackdown had backfired politically
against Washington became abundantly clear by Friday night, when
even members of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council (IGC)
felt it necessary to distance themselves from their patron.
elder statesman Adnan Pachachi, who is especially close to the State
Department, denounced the offensive against Fallujah as "illegal
and totally unacceptable," while Iyad Allawi, a prominent Shiite
and longtime favorite of the US and British intelligence service,
abruptly resigned from the council without explanation, as did the
IGC's human rights minister, Abdel Basit Turki.
Saturday, Mideast historian Juan
Cole wrote in his Internet journal that
other council members had either fled the country or were on the
verge of resigning. He predicted, "an incipient collapse
of the US government of Iraq."
to Ignatius, "US military forces in Iraq this week sadly became
what they have been trying for a year to avoid becoming an
army of occupation fighting a bitter urban war against a broad Iraqi
Lobe is Inter Press Service's correspondent in Washington, DC.
© 2004 One World