- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 30, 2003

Having found Saddam Hussein, if not his weapons of mass destruction, the United States will focus in the coming year on curbing the insurgency in Iraq and building a government that is stable and democratic enough to declare the controversial war a success.

The Dec. 13 capture of Saddam was the most dramatic U.S. success in Iraq since the dictatorship collapsed eight months earlier under the American military onslaught.

Following up on Saddam’s capture by installing a stable, internationally accepted Iraqi government would dispel criticism at home and abroad over U.S. stewardship of Iraq and for having found no weapons of mass destruction — a major justification for the war.

All this, however, hinges on the U.S. military’s ability to curb an insurgency that — before Saddam’s capture — was growing more sophisticated and lethal. With Saddam history, the Americans must persuade rival Shi’ite, Sunni and Kurdish communities to accept a power-sharing formula to prevent civil war.

Guerrillas — members of Saddam’s Ba’ath Party, as well as disaffected Iraqis and foreign fighters — have killed more American soldiers since President Bush declared major fighting over on May 1 than died in battle during the active combat phase, which began March 20.

Insurgents also have targeted the United Nations, the International Red Cross, foreign contractors, Iraqi police and others considered to be collaborating with the occupation force.

Capturing Saddam clearly bolsters the counterinsurgency effort. But it remains unclear whether Saddam personally was directing the resistance, and top U.S. commanders acknowledge his capture won’t be enough to stop it.

“We do not expect at this point in time that we will have a complete elimination of those attacks,” the U.S. commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, said after Saddam was captured.

Since the war began March 20, events in Iraq repeatedly have confounded forecasters.

After being hailed as liberators by a grateful Iraqi people, American soldiers have faced dozens of attacks each day. Predicted waves of refugees never materialized, but looters have devastated Baghdad and other major cities.

Eight months after Baghdad fell to the Americans, the U.S.-run occupation authority, holed up in the heavily fortified “green zone” along the Tigris River, has been unable to revive the economy — hobbled by decayed infrastructure and unemployment estimated at about 60 percent.

Congress has approved $18.6 billion to rebuild Iraq and billions more were committed at an international conference in Madrid in October.

However, improvements have been slow. Electricity production is near or above prewar levels. But petroleum production, the key to economic revival, has lagged because of poor infrastructure and sabotage.

In a major step toward Iraqi self-rule, the U.S.-led coalition plans to transfer sovereignty to a transitional Iraqi government by July and shift responsibility for security to newly — and, critics say, hastily — trained Iraqis.

A new constitution and a democratically elected government will be in place 18 months later, according to a formula announced Nov. 15.

U.S. officials hope that Saddam’s capture and the restoration of Iraqi rule will take the steam out of the insurgency as Iraqis see that governance is no longer in the hands of foreign occupation forces.

But the insurgency and the complexity of Iraqi society could wreck those plans or produce a country far different from the administration’s vision of a beacon of democracy for the Arab world.

Administrator L. Paul Bremer had planned for the Iraqis to draft and ratify a new constitution and hold national elections by the end of 2004. Sovereignty and the rule of the country would then revert to that new, democratic government.

But the Iraqis couldn’t agree how to choose delegates to draft the constitution, raising doubts that the whole process could be completed by deadline.

For the Americans, such a delay was politically untenable. Thirteen deaths in September, 33 in October and 69 in November raised doubts in the United States about the Iraq mission, especially with no Saddam and no weapons of mass destruction to show for the sacrifice.

The issue invigorated the Democrats, whose front-runner for the presidential nomination, Howard Dean, rose to prominence largely on his anti-Iraq war stance.

Mr. Bremer rushed to Washington in November for talks with Mr. Bush and his advisers and returned to Baghdad with a new plan to speed the power transfer.

U.S. officials dismissed suggestions that they had decided to “cut and run,” and the Pentagon said significant U.S. forces would remain in Iraq until the new government was on its feet.

If the plan works, Iraqis will assume a greater role in fighting the insurgents and maintaining order. That means U.S. troops could withdraw from the cities and towns into heavily fortified strongholds, thus reducing their losses.

Much depends on Iraq’s coalition-trained security forces, to number 221,000 and start providing security by September.

They will include about 35,000 troops in a new Iraqi army. However, the Pentagon has acknowledged that about one-third of the first 700-member battalion to finish training resigned before they could begin operations.

They quit because the pay — $60 a month for privates — was too low and because they feared reprisals, the Pentagon said.

Some U.S. soldiers complain privately that the Iraqis seem uninterested in pursuing guerrillas aggressively. Iraqi police complain that the Americans are insensitive to Iraqi culture.

Another major challenge will be to strike a balance between the aspirations of the majority Shi’ite Muslim community and fears of the Sunnis — the Iraqi elite since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in World War I.

The Shi’ites, who were oppressed by Saddam, are 60 percent of Iraq’s 25 million people, and many see the Americans as their vehicle to power.

The Kurds, the most pro-American group and about 15 percent of the population, want to ensure that they maintain autonomy in their northern strongholds.

Shi’ites, notably the politician Ahmed Chalabi, are among the best-educated and sophisticated people in Iraq. However, the Shi’ite community also is strongly influenced by religious clerics, whose views and style of leadership often are alien to Western values.

Shi’ites are divided between those favoring a prominent political role for the clergy and those who think clerics simply should provide moral guidance.

As a measure of Shi’ite clerical power, the now-abandoned U.S. plan to draft a constitution before transferring power collapsed when a leading cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, insisted that the charter be written only by elected delegates — a process the Americans feared would take too long.

Leading Shi’ites maintain that the most important clerics, foremost among them Mr. al-Sistani, are not interested in an Iran-style theocracy.

However, Mr. al-Sistani has insisted on constitutional guarantees of Iraq’s “Islamic character,” a term open to interpretation. Many Iraqi Shi’ites spent years in exile in Iran, where Mr. al-Sistani was born.

Bowing to the Shi’ites risks offending the Sunnis, many of whom are already deeply suspicious of the coalition. Most of the fighting has been in the Sunni heartland to the west and north of Baghdad.

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