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May 1, 2004

US On the Brink Over Iraq

by Jim Lobe

One year after President George W Bush declared the end of major combat in Iraq, the United States appears to be teetering on the brink of strategic defeat in its Mesopotamian adventure.

Even as Bush on Friday reiterated his ambition to bring "freedom and democracy" to Iraq and the Middle East, a series of recent policy reversals – capped by Friday's announcement that a former Ba'athist general will take charge of an all-Iraqi security force in Fallujah – suggests that an increasingly desperate Washington will settle for far less.

Indeed, over the past two weeks, the administration appears to have almost entirely jettisoned the neo-conservative vision of an ardently pro-U.S. Iraq led by Iraqi National Congress (INC) chief Ahmed Chalabi, opened wide to U.S. and western capital, and eager to serve as a convenient base for destabilising Syria, Iran and even Saudi Arabia if it gets out of line.

The defeat of the neo-conservatives, whose influence has been exercised primarily through the offices of Vice President Dick Cheney and Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, has been made abundantly clear by the mandate the administration has given United Nations Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi to essentially handpick the leadership of the new Iraqi government that will gain "limited sovereignty," as one State Department official put it this week, after Jun. 30.

That the world body has been given such an important role severely undercuts the maximalist objectives of the neo-cons and other right-wing unilateralists, whose main aim in going to war in Iraq was to demonstrate that Washington did not need the United Nations to "legitimate" its role as the ultimate guarantor of global security.

Brahimi's apparent decision to exclude Chalabi, for whom he is said to have the greatest contempt, drew strong protests from the INC leader's neo-con supporters in the Pentagon and outside the administration, who were then further infuriated by Brahimi's statements last week that current Israeli policies – fervently backed by the neo-cons – are "poison" for the entire region.

Bush's refusal to back away from the Algerian diplomat confirmed that the balance of power within the administration, at least on Iraq, has shifted decisively toward the realists.

Finally, the decision not only to forgo a major attack on insurgents in Fallujah but to also withdraw Marines to positions outside the city and recognise a new, Ba'athist-led force to guarantee security there, defied the hawks' increasingly shrill insistence that failure to crush the uprising and capture or kill those responsible for the deaths of four U.S. private-security contractors in early April would mark a strategic defeat for the occupation.

The deal, which clearly caught Pentagon civilians off-guard, appears to have been negotiated by commanders on the ground and approved by the National Security Council staff in the White House – one more indication that neo-cons have fallen from grace.

But it also indicated a larger policy already announced by Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) chief Paul Bremer a week ago – that, in the words of Iraq specialist Juan Cole at the University of Michigan, "the United States has embarked on a policy of re-Ba'athification, rehabilitating thousands of ex-Ba'athists and putting them to work."

This policy reversal, too, has been strongly opposed by Chalabi – who had been in charge of the programme to eliminate members of former President Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath Party from the public face of Iraq – and his allies in Washington.

But while the administration no longer appears to be heeding the neo-cons on Iraq policy, the big question is whether these policy reversals will save the U.S. occupation and Washington's minimum goals of putting in place (with Brahimi's help) a broadly representative government that can both ensure stability and go along with the indefinite presence of several discreetly situated U.S. military bases.

On this, opinions in Washington are deeply divided, but a growing number of analysts believe that policy changes might be too little, too late.

The foreign policy establishment was shocked by an interview in the Wall Street Journal by retired Gen. William E Odom who, among other posts, served as director of the National Security Agency (NSA) under former President Ronald Reagan (1981–89). "We have failed," he said last week, adding that even if an Iraqi election takes place next January as scheduled, "anybody that's pro-American cannot gain legitimacy."

Calling for a swift withdrawal, Odom, who is based at the conservative Hudson Institute and has never been inclined to traditional isolationism, warned that the continued presence of U.S. troops – let alone a major military crackdown against Iraqi insurgents – was simply radicalising both Iraqis and other Arabs, risking the destabilisation of the entire region.

"The issue is how high a price we're going to pay ... less, by getting out sooner, or more, by getting out later"?

His analysis was bolstered by the results of a detailed survey of 3,500 Iraqis throughout the country in late March and early April released Thursday by the Gallup organisation, CNN and USA Today. It found that 57 percent of Iraqis wants the U.S. occupation forces to leave the country "immediately," defined as "in the next few months." When the generally pro-U.S. Kurdish sample (representing about 13 percent of the population), was excluded, the percentage of Iraqis favouring an immediate withdrawal rose to two-thirds.

The detailed survey largely confirmed reports that the vast majority of Iraqis have become very disillusioned with U.S. and other occupation forces over the last 13 months. While pleased that Hussein is no longer in power, four out of five non-Kurdish Iraqis said they now regard the coalition forces as "occupiers" rather than "liberators."

Moreover, the survey was conducted before the sieges of Fallujah and Najaf, which, according to most published reports, further alienated Iraqis from the occupation.

"If these polls' results are to be believed, we've already lost the war for hearts and minds," noted one congressional aide, whose boss initially supported the war.

"I don't believe that the American public generally understand what happened in the first half of April, which is that the U.S. lost control of Iraq to a set of popular uprisings and was forced to re-conquer the country," Cole told IPS.

But the cost in both Iraqi and U.S. lives was unexpectedly high. More than 130 U.S. soldiers were killed in April, more than died in the first six weeks of last year's war itself; indeed, more than any one-month military death toll since just before the last U.S. combat troops withdrew from Vietnam in 1973. The fighting forced the administration to put off scheduled troop withdrawals and consider sending in more soldiers.

The political result here has been a sharp drop in public confidence in Bush's Iraq policy, according to a New York Times/CBS poll released Thursday, which also found that a record 58 percent of the U.S. public now believe the invasion has not been worth the cost in lives and resources.

Cole said the decision to pull back from Fallujah, as well as other recent major policy reversals "may have taken us back from the brink, but we could be back there at any time."

Indeed, even as the Marines were pulling back from Fallujah, the Pentagon was expediting the shipment of more heavy tanks and armoured vehicles to Iraq – precisely the kind of weapons that counter-insurgency specialists say will make it more difficult for occupation troops to win "hearts and minds."

The Associated Press (AP) reported this week that the army had even requested ski areas in the Sierra Nevada mountains that were using five howitzers to prevent avalanches to return them immediately for use in Iraq and Afghanistan – another indication that the military is both overstretched and preparing for the worst.

(Inter Press Service)

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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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