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Iraq: No Easy Options

14 minute read
Bill Powell

The mosques of Fallujah were silent last week. There were no clerics left to call the faithful to prayer. Some of the minarets that rise above the city were bullet-ridden and broken, targeted by American guns aiming to kill any Iraqi insurgents who might be taking cover inside. Buildings throughout the city lay in smoldering ruins in the wake of days of U.S. tank assaults and air strikes. It is not surprising that a ferocious battle erupted in Fallujah–the heart of the so-called Sunni triangle, where those loyal to Saddam Hussein and his thuggish regime have made their most violent stands.. The Marine-led assault on the city was intended to deliver to the enemy fighters their long-delayed reckoning in what the U.S. billed as the latest critical offensive in its campaign to “liberate” Iraq. But even for those accustomed to the unending drumbeat of sorrow in Iraq, the grim scenes of urban warfare in Fallujah, where hundreds were said to have died, took a heavy toll–and the news for the U.S. in the rest of Iraq was not all that encouraging either.

For the past year many in Iraq’s Shi’ite majority have chafed under the U.S. occupation–at the lack of jobs and the frustrating pace of the promised transition to Iraqi rule, a transition that promised to bring them to power. That simmering discontent last week turned into a full, chaos-inducing boil. Following a call to arms by a radical, power-hungry cleric named Muqtada al-Sadr, thousands of Iraqi Shi’ites declared war against a military that had freed them from a heinous dictator. In cities across Iraq, Shi’ite militants united behind the goal of casting off the yoke of occupation by killing or capturing any foreigner, military or civilian, they came across. Together with the fighting in Fallujah, the Shi’ite uprising produced the bloodiest eruption of violence since the war began. In the past week, 46 U.S. soldiers and more than 460 Iraqis were killed. Seemingly overnight, an uprising by the country’s previously peaceful majority–a specter that has haunted U.S. planners and could doom chances for democracy in Iraq–went from remotely plausible to dangerously imminent.

The U.S. now faces a two-front insurgency. It stretches from restive cities west of Baghdad, such as Fallujah and Ramadi, to the Shi’ite provinces of southern Iraq, where until last week the U.S. believed it enjoyed the grudging support of a populace grateful that Saddam sits in a jail cell, awaiting trial for his crimes. There are signs that the siege in Fallujah and the resistance among those loyal to al-Sadr have united the traditionally fractious Shi’ites and Sunnis against a common enemy. In Baghdad half of those who joined a caravan carrying supplies to the mostly Sunni residents of Fallujah were Shi’ite demonstrators loyal to al-Sadr. Some shouted, “Hey, Fallujah, Sunni and Shi’ite coming to save you! Shi’ite and Sunni united together, thanks to America!”

U.S. officials do not believe the uprising will turn into a nationwide insurrection. They say the Shi’ite militia numbers only a few thousand and describe leaders, including al-Sadr, as two-bit thugs. All that may be true. But the inability of the U.S., its coalition partners and their Iraqi allies to prevent the outbreak of mayhem showed that, a full year into the occupation, Iraq is nowhere close to being under control. After Iraqi police forces were overrun by al-Sadr’s men, the Iraqi Interior Minister resigned at the behest of U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer, a Shi’ite member of the U.S.-appointed Governing Council quit, and a Sunni member threatened to follow if the U.S. failed to achieve a cease-fire in Fallujah. But even as the military sought a truce late last week–and Governing Council members started talks with al-Sadr–insurgents had expanded their tactics of terror, seizing, according to a masked spokes-man, as many as 30 non-Iraqi hostages. As the U.S. scrambled to find and deploy sufficient troops to suppress the metastasizing revolt, there was grim talk that, in the words of Larry Diamond, a former senior adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), “the second Iraq war” had begun.

The White House sought to maintain an appearance of calm as the U.S. death toll soared. President George W. Bush spent much of last week out of public view at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, waiting until Saturday and his weekly radio address to vow that the U.S. would stand with the Iraqi people to ensure that their “young democracy is stable and secure and successful.” But nerves are fraying. Nearly a year ago Bush landed on an aircraft carrier and proclaimed an end to “major combat operations” in Iraq. His approval rating then was 63%. Now, according to a new TIME/CNN poll, Bush’s rating is 49%, the lowest level since he took office. Though 55% approve of the job he is doing on terrorism, 51% disapprove of the way he is handling the situation in Iraq. The President had hoped to remind voters of his leadership credentials in the run-up to June 30–the day the U.S. provisional authority, officially at least, stops calling the shots in Baghdad and gives way to some form of transitional government. In early June, Bush is scheduled to fly to Normandy to mark the 60th anniversary of the D-day invasion. There he will meet French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder, the two most persistent critics of the war among U.S. allies. Bush, his aides expect, will hail “the greatest generation,” drape that same mantle on those fighting today and assert that the struggle in Iraq is a noble one.

But for the White House and many Americans, that question–whether the war was right or wrong–is now secondary to another one: How do we get out of it? The Marines’ relentless fighting in Fallujah, Washington hoped, would send a clear message to the insurgents: there would be no retreat. It was, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said, a “test of wills.” General John Abizaid, head of U.S. Central Command (Centcom) responsible for Iraq, told Bush in a video-conference call last Friday that his troops were not seeing Sunni-Shi’ite cooperation in any structural or systematic way. In the south, U.S. forces reclaimed the city of Kut from the short-lived control of al-Sadr’s militia. But Pentagon officials warned that the conflict against al-Sadr and his supporters might drag on: the Shi’ite festival of Arbaeen on Sunday attracted hundreds of thousands of worshippers to Karbala and Najaf, where al-Sadr was holed up. U.S. troops would tread carefully there until at least early this week, when the pilgrims would begin leaving.

According to White House advisers, Bush is content to let the military get on with its mission. But U.S. officials can hardly claim that they have a clear plan to contain the rebellion. Among U.S. allies abroad and politicians from both parties at home, calls are growing for the Administration to revamp its strategy for bringing Iraq under control and establishing the conditions for a rapid transfer of power to Iraqis. None of the options are painless, and all risk making things worse before they get better. But the U.S. cannot afford to wait until Iraq becomes an unwinnable quagmire. Here are three possible options to prevent that:


From the beginning of operation Iraqi Freedom, critics have questioned Rumsfeld’s insistence that a relatively lean force was sufficient to take care of business in Iraq–for both the initial assault and all that has come in its wake. That Rumsfeld’s go-small strategy has failed to make Iraq a secure place is now clear to almost everyone. Iraq’s borders are still dangerously porous. Fallujah and other parts of the Sunni triangle, unmolested during the invasion last year–in part because the U.S. failed to get Turkey’s approval to move forces across its border–remain untamed. In recent months U.S. forces have curtailed patrols and pulled back to bases outside Iraq’s inner cities, leaving most of southern Iraq in the hands of its coalition partners. It has also turned over the policing of urban areas like Baghdad’s seething Shi’ite slum Sadr City to overmatched Iraqi security forces, which is why nowhere near enough U.S. forces were available to respond when al-Sadr’s militia made its move.

And so last week Rumsfeld acknowledged for the first time that he might be forced to break his pledge not to keep any U.S. soldiers in Iraq for more than 12 months. With the coalition desperate to quash the Shi’ite insurgency before it spreads, the Pentagon says it will probably delay shipping out some 25,000 soldiers–mostly members of the 1st Armored Division–who have been in the country for a year. Because of scheduled troop rotations, there are 135,000 U.S. soldiers in Iraq, up from 120,000 several weeks ago. An Army officer at Centcom insists that delaying the departure of elements of the 1st Armored Division for up to three months “should be enough to get us through this rough patch.”

But a modest rise in troop strength may not be enough to fight a two-front insurgency, prepare the way for elections and resume the reconstruction of Iraq, which was thrown into upheaval by the violence last week. Those calling for an even bigger force point to a historical comparison: in Northern Ireland, the ratio of British police and troops to civilians at the conflict’s height was 20 per 1,000; a comparable U.S. presence in Iraq would require 500,000 troops. That might well be what it would take in Iraq, but the U.S. has almost nowhere to turn for more manpower. Further internationalizing the military presence, the panacea offered by, among others, Democratic presidential candidate Senator John Kerry, may sound good on the stump, but no U.S. ally intends to commit significant forces to a widening conflict–not while the CPA is in charge. Politically, the more pressing task is to keep allied troops in Iraq from bugging out. Even if most stay, U.S. military officials complain that the other foreign troops in Iraq showed last week that they don’t have permission from their governments to engage in heavy fighting and lack the firepower to combat even minor foes like al-Sadr’s militia. Nor are the Iraqi security forces recruited and trained by the U.S. ready for prime time yet.

That leaves the Americans. But as a Bush adviser asks, “Where are you going to get [more U.S. troops]? Bosnia? Korea?” Not likely. For the foreseeable future, when it comes to troop strength, what we see now is pretty much what we’ll get.


Pushing back the June 30 deadline–an idea broached publicly last week by, among others, Indiana Republican Senator Richard Lugar–would not be controversial if Iraq did not have so many groups competing for power. After all, Bremer’s CPA still doesn’t know to whom it’s going to transfer authority on June 30. U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi arrived in Baghdad last week, charged with persuading prominent Iraqi leaders to accept a political arrangement that could bridge the gap between the handover and next year’s hoped-for elections. A knowledgeable State Department official says Brahimi will probably endorse the idea that the interim government should retain at least some members of the Governing Council, despite their limited legitimacy in the eyes of Iraqis. But Brahimi also “appreciates that you have to have a wider political representation than you have now,” says the official. Selecting those representatives will take time, however, and Brahimi is off to a slow start. The State Department official acknowledges that the continuing military conflict “will put off, for a time, Brahimi’s work.”

The trouble with a delay is that, given the instability of the occupation, few Iraqis are willing to wait. It is critical, if the U.S. is to maintain any credibility in the eyes of Iraqis, to get on with at least a symbolic transfer of power, even if a significant number of troops remain and real authority will mostly be wielded out of a new 3,000-person U.S. embassy. Officials believe delaying the transition would only further enrage Iraqis, including, critically, the country’s most revered Shi’ite leader, Grand Ayatullah Ali Husaini Sistani, whose support the U.S. needs more than ever as it tries to rein in the upstart al-Sadr. “June 30 is a good date,” says Rend al-Rahim Francke, Iraq’s diplomatic representative to the U.S. “It is long overdue.”

Sticking to the deadline is about the only thing that nearly everyone involved in the planning process–American or Iraqi–can agree on. That’s why Bush repeated his insistence last Saturday that the date won’t change. But Administration officials concede that the haggling over who will take over Iraq will probably continue well into May. “It’s the Middle East,” says an Administration official. “You won’t get a deal until the very end.”


No current or former U.S. government official–and no prominent U.S. politician aside from long-shot presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich–publicly advocates, to use the Vietnam formulation, declaring victory and getting out of Iraq. Not yet, anyway. But the question lurks under the surface of public debate about what the U.S. should do. And it’s not that far under: Senator Edward Kennedy, a frequent campaigner for Kerry, gave a speech last week calling Iraq “George Bush’s Vietnam.”

If the daily reports of U.S. servicemen and -women dying in Iraq continue at their current pace, calls for a pullout could increase. That will be particularly true if–and it’s still a big if–the rebellion among the Shi’ites spreads well beyond where it is today. Having given more than 600 of their sons and daughters to remove Saddam and help rebuild the country, Americans are not likely to be patient if the majority of Iraqis seem to be turning on them.

The TIME/CNN poll last week showed only 24% of Americans now view the military campaign in Iraq to be “unsuccessful”; on the other hand, more than half say the U.S. should maintain or increase the number of troops in Iraq. The relative public equanimity gives the Bush Administration precious time to try to get things right. Foreign policy luminaries from both parties say a precipitous U.S. withdrawal would cripple American credibility, doom reform in the Arab world and turn Iraq into a playground for terrorists and the armies of neighboring states like Iran and Syria. “We can’t afford to have a failed state there,” says Nancy Stetson, a foreign policy adviser to Kerry. “If we walk away, the place could implode.”

So when can the U.S. walk away? After last week’s eruptions, the most this Administration–or, should Kerry win in November, the next one–can hope for is that some kind of elected Iraqi government will eventually emerge from the wreckage, at which point the U.S. could conceivably reduce the number of its troops significantly. But getting there requires a commitment of at least several more months of American blood and treasure. As his troops raced toward Baghdad last March, the commander of the 101st Airborne Division, Major General David Petraeus, asked a question that is both basic and haunting: “Tell me how this is supposed to end?” More than a year down the road, we still don’t know the answer. –Reported by Massimo Calabresi, Matthew Cooper and Mark Thompson/Washington; J.F.O. McAllister/London; and Andrew Lee Butters/Baghdad

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