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September 17, 2004

Growing Consensus That Iraq Is Hopeless

by Jim Lobe

After weeks of hurricanes and controversies over swift boats in Vietnam and Texas and Alabama National Guard records, Iraq is beginning to creep back onto the front pages, and the news is uniformly bad.

Consider some of the headlines in major newspapers that appeared on their front pages on Wednesday alone:

Wall Street Journal: "Rebel Attacks Reveal New Cooperation: Officials Fear Recent Rise in Baghdad Violence Stems from Growing Coordination."

Baltimore Sun: "In Iraq, Chance for Credible Vote is Slipping Away."

Philadelphia Inquirer: "Outlook: The Growing Insurgency Could Doom U.S. Plans for Iraq, Analysts Say."

Washington Post: "U.S. Plans to Divert Iraq Money: Attacks Prompt Request to Move Reconstruction Funds to Security Forces."

And then Thursday:

USA Today: "Insurgents in Iraq Appear More Powerful Than Ever."

New York Times: "U.S. Intelligence Shows Pessimism on Iraq's Future: Civil War Called Possible – Tone Differs from Public Statements."

All of which tended to confirm the conclusion of the latest Newsweek magazine's Iraq feature: "It's Worse Than You Think."

Against these stories – putting aside the other headlines detailing deadly suicide and other attacks that have killed scores of Iraqis in the past week – Bush's insistence in a campaign address to a convention of the National Guard Tuesday that "our strategy is succeeding" appears awfully hollow, a point made repeatedly not only by Democratic, but by some Republican lawmakers at a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Wednesday.

"It's beyond pitiful, it's beyond embarrassing," noted Nebraska Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel, who has long been skeptical of administration claims that the Iraq occupation was going well. "It is now in the zone of dangerous."

Indeed, it is now very difficult to find any analysts outside of the administration or the Bush campaign who share the official optimism.

Consider the case of Michael O'Hanlon, a defense specialist at the Brookings Institution and former National Security Council aide who has been among the most confident of independent analysts of the basic soundness of Washington's strategy in Iraq.

"In my judgment the administration is basically correct that the overall effort in Iraq is succeeding," he testified to a Congressional panel just 10 months ago. "By the standards of counterinsurgency warfare, most factors, though admittedly not all, appear to be working to our advantage."

This week, however, O'Hanlon, who has developed a detailed index periodically published in the New York Times that measures U.S. progress in postwar Iraq, was singing an entirely different song at a forum sponsored by Brookings and the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

"We're in much worse shape than I thought we'd ever be," he said. "I don't know how you get it back," he conceded, adding that his last remaining hope was that somehow the U.S. could train enough indigenous Iraqi security forces within two to three years to keep the country "cohesive" and permit an eventual U.S. withdrawal. "A Lebanonization of Iraq" was also quite possible, he said.

His conclusion was echoed by his CSIS co-panelists, Frederick Barton and Bathsheba Crocker, who direct their own index that relies heavily on interviews with Iraqis themselves in measuring progress in reconstruction .

According to the five general criteria used by them, movement over the past 13 months has for the most part been "backward," particularly with respect to security which they now consider to be squarely in the "danger" zone.

"Security and economic problems continue to overshadow and undermine efforts across the board," including health care, education and governance, according to a report their project released last week. Among other things, it noted that despite a massive school-building and rehabilitation program, children are increasingly dropping out to help their families survive an economy where almost half the working population remains unemployed.

The growing media chorus of despair actually began just one week ago, a few days after the brilliantly staged Republican convention in New York City had ended, when the U.S. military death toll in Iraq since last year's invasion topped the 1,000 mark, and the New York Times published a front-page article entitled "U.S. Conceding Rebels Control Regions of Iraq."

Since then, a number of articles have featured the increasing violence of the insurgency, which is now mounting an average of more than 80 attacks on U.S. targets – four times the number of one year ago and 25 percent higher than last spring, when the U.S. faced serious uprisings in both the Sunni Triangle and in the south.

Washington officials had predicted that attacks would increase sharply just before the transfer of sovereignty from the U.S.-dominated Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) to the interim government headed by Prime Minister Ayad Allawi in late June and would tail off.

But, as noted by a front-page article in the Washington Post late last week, more U.S. troops were killed in July and August than during the initial invasion in March and April 2003. Injuries suffered by U.S. troops in August alone were twice what they were during the invasion.

The escalation in violence over the summer is now being attributed by administration officials to the insurgents' efforts to derail the elections, currently scheduled for January.

The increased violence – particularly in Baghdad and the so-called "Sunni Triangle" where Fallujah, Ramadi, Baquba and Samarra, among other towns, are controlled by insurgents – has created a serious dilemma for administration strategists who, on the one hand, reject the notion that there are "no-go" areas for U.S. troops, and, on the other, want to keep U.S. casualties down and off the front pages and U.S. television sets, particularly before the November elections here.

As a result, they appear to have settled on a strategy – bombing suspected insurgent hideouts from the air – that further alienates the civilian population.

"I don't believe that you can flatten cities and expect to win popular support," noted CSIS' Barton.

"This is the classic contradiction of counterinsurgency," Steven Metz, a strategy specialist at the U.S. Army War College, told the Inquirer. "In the long term, winning the people matters more. But it may be that in the short term, you have to forgo that in order to crush the insurgents. Right now, we are trying to decide whether we have reached that point. In Vietnam, we waited too long."

Meanwhile, both independent and U.S. military analysts believe that the insurgency, which the administration still insists is made up only of Ba'athist "dead-enders," foreign "jihadis," and criminals, has grown from an estimated 5,000 people one year ago to at least 20,000 and possibly significantly more.

"The bottom line is, at this moment we are losing the war," Col. Andrew Bacevich (ret.) of Boston University told USA Today Thursday. "That doesn't mean it is lost, but we are losing, and as an observer it is difficult for me to see that either the civilian leadership or the military leadership has any plausible idea on how to turn this around."

(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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