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April 24, 2004

US Starting From Square One in Iraq, One Year Later

by Jim Lobe

One year after invading U.S. and British forces consolidated their control over Iraq, the administration of President George W. Bush appears to be back at Square One, if not in negative territory, over how to ensure that control in the short to medium term.

The problem, however, is that the administration lacks any comprehensive strategy and remains internally divided over precisely what to do.

Neo-conservative hawks centered in the Pentagon and Vice President Dick Cheney's office and their allies outside the administration remain strongly opposed to giving the United Nations a major substantive role in any aspect of the occupation or abandoning plans to ensure that their Iraqi collaborators, notably Iraqi National Congress (INC) leader Ahmed Chalabi, retain power in any transition.

The administration's latest policy revision was confirmed in Baghdad on Friday with the announcement by Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) chief Paul Bremer that the "de-Ba'athification" policy he carried to Iraq almost 11 months ago had been "poorly implemented" and needed to be reviewed.

The plain meaning of his remarks, despite his continued insistence that the policy "was and is sound," was that thousands of former senior and mid-level members of the Ba'ath Party of former President Saddam Hussein will now be brought back into the government, especially the military and the police, presumably to secure the stability and order that some 160,000 US and British troops and their auxiliaries from the ever-shrinking "coalition of the willing" have been unable to impose.

Bremer's announcement followed by just a few days another by Bush himself that United Nations special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi will be given the lead to determine the shape and composition of a new transitional authority that will replace the current Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) from Jun. 30, when "limited sovereignty" will revert to Iraqis, until elections for a new government can be held, hopefully in January 2005.

The hope is that Brahimi's and the U.N.'s imprimatur on the interim government will provide it with the international – and, more important, an Iraqi domestic – acceptance and legitimacy that have also eluded the widely discredited IGC.

While both steps have been in the works since last year, the past month's setbacks – especially the unprecedented violence that has taken the lives of more than 100 US troops and more than 1,000 Iraqis in Fallujah, parts of Baghdad and the predominantly Shia south – made them all the more urgent.

Suddenly the administration, which was in the process of drawing down its troops from 150,000 to about 100,000 by the Jun. 30 transition date, was facing what many now call popular uprisings in both the "Sunni Triangle" and among the majority Shiite population, whose acquiescence in the U.S.-led occupation has long been seen as absolutely indispensable to the success of Washington's Iraq agenda.

US efforts to suppress the insurgency in Fallujah were, by all accounts, politically disastrous. With hundreds of Iraqis – including women and children – killed in the fighting, the city quickly became a rallying cry for both Sunnis and Shias but also nationalists and Islamists fed up with the CPA's incompetence and the humiliations of occupation.

"I am convinced now (that the CPA) created a situation where Iraqis are in total psychological revolt," Gailan Ramiz, a U.S.-educated political scientist in Baghdad, told the Christian Science Monitor this week.

That U.S.-trained and supervised Iraqi military and security forces by and large failed to back up coalition troops during the fighting has added to the sense that Washington's hopes of transferring security duties to Iraqis and withdrawing most of its forces to discreet bases away from population centers were based on wishful thinking.

US generals in Iraq admitted this week that as much as 10 percent of Iraqi security forces worked with or joined the rebels, and that an additional 40 percent simply melted away or refused US orders. Other analysts say those estimates are low.

"The 'Iraqization' security plan must be thoroughly reexamined," noted analysts Jessica Mathews and Marina Ottaway of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP), who wrote in the Financial Times this week that Washington's political and security strategy is now "in tatters."

The problem is that the US reaction – including Bush's delegation of authority to Brahimi and Bremer's recruitment of former Ba'athists – appears driven more by ad hoc emergencies than an overall strategy for both stabilizing the country and implementing a credible "exit strategy."

As a result, each policy issue is likely to be the subject of major internal fights between the "realists," based in the State Department, the uniformed military and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and the neo-conservative hawks around Cheney and Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld, fights of the kind detailed in reporter Bob Woodward's new insider account, Plan of Attack.

"Without a really well-thought-out strategy that has the support of all the major players, the administration is going to have a really hard time getting anywhere," said one State Department source who asked not to be identified. "I see lots of room for sabotage by one faction or another if they don't get what they want."

Indeed, neo-conservative forces, such as the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal and former Defense Policy Board Chairman Richard Perle, concerned about reports that Brahimi is unlikely to recommend Chalabi – who has led and championed an aggressive de-Ba'athification campaign – to a position in the interim government, are loudly complaining that the Algerian diplomat is the spearhead of a U.N.-State Department-CIA plot to take control of the transition. They also worry that greater U.N. influence could result in a less aggressive military policy toward Iraqi insurgents.

The lack of a comprehensive strategy was underlined in the reaction of Republican Senator John McCain, who emerged from a closed briefing with National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice muttering "There is no plan."

Three days of hearings on Iraq policy on Capitol Hill this week, which culminated in testimony by Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Marc Grossman, also confirmed to many analysts that the administration is engaged in wishful thinking and ad hoc planning.

Pressed for details, Grossman repeatedly stated that the shape and leadership of the interim government will be determined by Brahimi next month – less than 60 days before the scheduled transition – but that Washington will remain in charge of all security and military forces and oppose any attempts by the new body to pass new laws or amend existing ones during the interim period.

As noted by David Ignatius of the Washington Post, "The big problem with the new Iraqi policy is that it's at war with the old one."

At a time when the administration appears to be embracing a more U.N.-centered approach, it is also imposing strict limits on the ability and power of any new authority to depart from policies put in place by the CPA and the neo-conservatives' favorites on the IGC.

Democrats also suggested that the proposed "limited sovereignty" framework risked a major backlash by Iraqis, who have been told that real sovereignty would be returned to them as of Jun. 30.

Iraqis are "going to wake up (on Jul. 1) and there's going to be 160,000 (US) troops and a US ambassador pulling the strings," noted Sen. Joseph Biden. "How does that take the American face off 'the occupation'?"

That point was echoed by British professor Toby Dodge, an author of two recent books on Iraq, who also warned in testimony this week, "there is so much uncertainty in a very uncertain and disturbed country that Jun. 30 may well add to our problems, not detract from them."

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    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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