- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 29, 2003

Something has gone wrong with our plans to quickly rebuild Iraq and put it on the road to democracy and economic growth. A big part of the problems we are struggling to overcome has to do with the way we are using our combat forces there, where they are being sent and what they are being asked to protect.

Too many soldiers seem to be conducting house-to-house searches for weapons in small cities or towns in outlying areas with very little effect, except to give remnants of Saddam Hussein’s supporters opportunities to stir up anger and unrest and wage hit-and-run attacks on coalition forces.

We knew that after the war there would be sustained guerrilla attacks on our troops to kill as many American soldiers as possible, and every other day or so one or two or more are being killed or injured. Terrorists killed at least one U.S. Special Operations soldier at the end of last week and wounded eight others in Baghdad. At least 18 U.S. troops have been killed in attacks since May 1.

And the guerrillas are not just shooting at our troops, they are also killing Iraqi civilians who cooperate with us. Two Iraqi electrical workers were killed by a bomb last week amid death threats that anyone working with the U.S. will be targeted.

Some of this is to be expected as we go about the task of mopping up the thugs and killers who are determined to restore Saddam’s hated Ba’ath political party to power. But in too many instances we have been playing into the hands of the enemy, walking into ambushes, getting bogged down unnecessarily in weak, defensive positions while opposition forces remain advantageously on offense — picking the time and place of their attacks.

Last week an Iraqi mob killed six British military police officers after a house-to-house search for weapons in the city of Majar al-Kabir gave Iraqi opposition forces the chance to whip a crowd into a frenzy against their presence.

The question is why did we give the guerrillas that opening? Why are we putting coalition forces into no-win situations where we have little to gain and are vulnerable to these kinds of flash-point attacks?

Then there are the mounting acts of sabotage on oil pipelines, electric power lines and water-treatment plants that have set back reconstruction efforts.

Among the worst and most recent sabotage acts, a central power line from the northern town of Baiji was destroyed, cutting off electricity to most of Baghdad where temperatures hovered around 120 degrees. L. Paul Bremer, who heads the U.S. occupation authority, blamed the powerline cutoff on “rogue Ba’athist elements. Water treatment plants that are tied to the electric power connection were also shut down.

Several oil pipelines have also been blown up lately, slowing the output of oil that produces the revenue needed to finance Iraq’s postwar reconstruction.

All this leads to one simple conclusion: Use more of our forces to protect central infrastructure utilities from acts off sabotage. Securing water supplies, electric power and oil production is at the core of restoring the essential building blocks of Iraq’s economy.

We need to better guard these facilities, not only with ground troops but through regular air surveillance — day and night — especially along the oil pipeline routes.

We are now organizing an Iraqi police force to bolster security across Iraq, and that needs to be stepped up. But until we get those forces trained and in place, the best use of our forces is to keep the saboteurs at bay.

Another tactical point: We seem to have abandoned the strategy that led us to victory in Iraq. Instead of allowing our forces to be distracted by fighting it out in small cities and town, we focused on the heart and soul of Saddam Hussein’s seat of power: Baghdad. In the same way, we need to concentrate our forces on the centers of political and economic power in the country and not get bogged down in outlying areas where we will be at a disadvantage in guerrilla warfare.

We have little to gain by entering smaller population cities and towns in a show of force that will trigger ambushes by bands of Iraqi killers. This is what they want us to do so they can pick off a few or our soldiers each day, hoping Iraqi civilians will be kill or maimed in the cross-fire that all too often happens. That enflames Iraqi hatred for the U.S. occupation and feeds the cause of the terrorists who believe Saddam is alive and will one day return to power.

Right now a more effective military strategy would be for the U.S. forces to pull back a little. Be a little less visible but put a ring of safety around the resources and facilities that are critical to daily life in Iraq.

Concentrate on rebuilding and securing the infrastructure and that will give Iraqis a feeling that their country is getting back on its feet, that life is returning to normal. That is what Saddam’s killers fear most.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent for The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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