New Sound and Fury Hide Fear and Worry
While the US' new military aggressiveness against alleged enemy targets in Iraq provided good video to lead TV news broadcasts this week, its effectiveness, as well as the latest political strategy to win Iraqi "hearts and minds," remain very much in question.
While the military put on a display of firepower in Baghdad and in the notorious "Sunni Triangle" no doubt to "shock and awe" an increasingly effective and sophisticated resistance all that sound and fury failed to drown out the growing impression the administration is at a loss as to how to reverse negative trends on the ground.
Those trends were detailed in a partially leaked Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) report that Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) chief L. Paul Bremer carried with him from Baghdad for intensive talks at the White House Tuesday and Wednesday.
The document warned that the resistance was growing in strength and that rising numbers of Iraqis believe the occupation might be defeated.
The fact that Bremer returned under these circumstances suggested to at least one prominent neo-conservative analyst, Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA officer and Mideast specialist at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), that the administration "knows its program in Iraq is failing," a remarkable assertion given Gerecht's strong support for the administration both before and after last spring's US-led war.
But the meetings' outcome, Bush's decision to sharply accelerate the process of "Iraqification," represents a serious gamble for the administration.
The word itself reminiscent of the Nixon administration's ill-fated "Vietnamisation" strategy of the early 1970s is politically problematic in that it suggests Bush is seeking a way to withdraw "with honor" but without necessarily achieving his more high-minded goals, such as ensuring the viability of a new Iraqi state, let alone creating a democratic one that would act as a model for the Arab world.
"If the policy is to more rapidly Iraqify the situation as in Vietnamisation during the Vietnam War then that is another version of cutting and running," Senator Joseph Biden, the senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told the Washington Post Friday.
The military side of Iraqification means the greatly accelerated recruitment and training of tens of thousands of Iraqi men into the army, police and other security forces.
That process will enable Washington to gradually withdraw its own forces from the approximately 135,000 there today to around 100,000 by next spring and as few as half that number by the November 2004 U.S. presidential elections.
But the draw down will be accompanied by a more-aggressive, U.S. counterinsurgency campaign, based on better intelligence provided by indigenous Iraqi forces. The opening stages of that effort were on display this week, although, as noted by the New York Times Friday, it was not clear whether this week's fireworks were particularly effective.
On the political side, the Bush administration has now given up on a seven-stage process originally promoted by Bremer that would have begun with the drafting of a new constitution by early next year and the installation of an elected government next summer or early fall at the latest.
That scenario was frustrated by both the deteriorating security situation and protracted delays by the US-selected Iraqi Governing Council (IGC), largely dominated by Kurdish leaders and former exiles, in addressing key issues like how the constitution-drafting committee will be selected.
The administration has now agreed to put off the constitution until after the creation by next spring of a provisional government. That body will presumably assume formal sovereignty, be given greater executive powers (subject to Bremer's veto) than the IGC now enjoys, and organize the drafting of a constitution.
"They are clamoring for it; they are, we believe, ready for it," US National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice said after the latest round of meetings this week.
Both the military and political sides of this "Iraqization" strategy are designed to work in tandem to defeat the resistance by, on the one hand, mounting a more effective counterinsurgency, and on the other, by persuading Iraqis that Washington has no interest in running their country.
But the strategy carries huge risks.
On the military side, the main worry is over the speed with which recruitment is taking place.
In just the last two weeks, the number of men under arms has doubled to about 118,000. Under these circumstances, as the Washington Post noted Friday, training is virtually nonexistent, while screening of recruits for Ba'athist sympathies has necessarily also been reduced.
"How will we know whether the Iraqi recruits can be trusted not to carry out sabotage?" asked another prominent neo-conservative, Weekly Standard editor William Kristol, in a major attack on Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld, called "Exit Strategy or Victory Strategy?"
Moreover, the CIA itself warned that more aggressive US military operations could very easily undermine the war for "hearts and minds," as the United States has learned in many previous wars, not least Vietnam.
But similar and even greater risks attend the political process, where the central issue is how a provisional government will be appointed.
The IGC reportedly favors the creation of an interim assembly, which will include its members along with others appointed by the IGC and the CPA and/or selected in local elections or by tribal or religious chiefs around the country.
But this process poses serious political problems beginning with the fact that recent polling shows that the current membership of the IGC, particularly the exiles who have been closest to Washington, lacks any grassroots support.
"If they form the core of any new governing authority, we're going to have a credibility problem from the get-go," one Congressional aide told IPS.
Moreover, such a selection process would effectively defy an edict issued last summer by the Grand Ayatollah Sistani, who is believed to have the greatest influence of any leader in Iraq's majority Shi'a community, which so far has generally cooperated with the occupation.
He has demanded that those who will draft the constitution must be democratically elected.
Because of Sistani's stature and influence, Gerecht writes, the IGC's constitutional plans, if implemented, could be disastrous. "If only a small number of Shiites become violently hostile to coalition forces, the United States' presence in the country will quickly become untenable."
At this point, the administration does not have good answers to any of the questions raised by the growing number of critics, even those who until now were solidly in the Bush camp.
(Inter Press Service)
Recent columns by Jim Lobe
Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.
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