- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 1, 2003

It has been a busy six months since President Bush declared the major combat phase of the war to oust Saddam Hussein completed, and a definitive postmortem assessment on the conflict remains as elusive as the former Iraqi leader himself.

The Bush administration can count some significant successes and some notable failures in the vastly ambitious campaign to oust a 30-year dictatorship, rebuild a fractured and impoverished country, redefine the military and political calculus of the Middle East, and strike what it sees as a critical blow in the post-September 11 global war on terrorism.

And an especially bloody week in Iraq — highlighted by a deadly suicide attack on the Baghdad headquarters of the Red Cross and the near-assassination of Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, a prime architect of the conflict — has forced Mr. Bush to address fresh doubts about the long-term American resolve in the region.

“We’re even more determined to work with the Iraqi people to create the conditions of freedom and peace, because it’s in our national interest we do so,” Mr. Bush said after a meeting Monday with L. Paul Bremer, the head of the U.S.-dominated Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) that runs Iraq.

“It’s in the interest of long-term peace in the world that we work for a free and secure and peaceful Iraq,” Mr. Bush said.

U.S. forces passed a grim milestone Monday when combat deaths since Mr. Bush’s May 1 address reached 117 — three more than the total killed in the campaign beginning March 20 that drove Saddam from power.

Attacks on U.S. and allied forces in Iraq, which appeared to tail off in September, averaged 33 a day in the past week, according the U.S. Central Command officials. That is 50 percent higher than the figure given for mid-October.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, in a now-famous leaked memo, said that victory in Iraq would come only after a “long, hard slog,” while Secretary of State Colin L. Powell conceded last week that the administration and the U.S. military “did not expect [the violence] would be quite this intense this long.”

Rising voices of dissent

Mr. Bush’s critics, largely silenced by the stunningly swift victory of coalition forces in the war, have become increasingly vocal. Mr. Bush’s contention that the deadly attacks were a sign that the Iraq mission was succeeding were widely challenged.

“If this is progress, I don’t know how much more progress we can take,” said Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, last week.

Analysts say even an interim verdict on Iraq is difficult because every advance is balanced by a setback. Progress in one area is offset by problems in another. And the continuing difficult security environment overshadows what administration officials insist is the good news occurring all over the country.

The CPA has wiped Saddam’s face from the new Iraqi currency, but has yet to bring the dictator himself to justice.

Saddam’s notorious sons, Uday and Qusai, are dead, killed in a raid by coalition troops, but so is top U.N. diplomat Sergio Vieira de Mello, killed in August in one of a continuing series of devastating suicide-bombing attacks that have targeted foreign officials and Iraqis cooperating with the United States and its allies.

The administration has received tepid support at best from major allies on its Iraq reconstruction program, but was able to win a unanimous 15-0 vote in the U.N. Security Council last month providing an international mandate for the coalition’s military mission.

Pledges reach $33 billion

An international donors conference in Madrid late last month, widely predicted to be a disaster before it started, produced some $13 billion in new aid and pledges for Iraq. The figure, combined with $20 billion put up by the United States, is less than the total bill for reconstruction, but is expected to meet all of the country’s short-term spending capacity needs.

Schools, courts and hospitals have reopened, and the CPA has sharply increased salaries for teachers and civil servants, but unemployment is estimated at 60 percent and higher, with hundreds of thousands of ex-Iraqi soldiers among the jobless.

Baghdad’s international airport has been extensively refurbished, in large part through contracts overseen by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). But commercial flights, originally targeted to resume in June, are still on hold for fear that terrorists with rocket launchers will shoot down incoming planes.

Electricity generation in Baghdad has finally exceeded prewar levels, and oil production, despite extensive sabotage, is also nearing the prewar rate of 2.5 million barrels per day.

But Andrew Bearpark, the British development expert who is in charge of the CPA’s infrastructure-reconstruction efforts, said in an interview in Baghdad last month that catching up is not enough.

“The problem for us is that we have to go to much higher levels of production in all these fields to support a modern economy here, and we can’t do it with the dilapidated systems we’ve been given to work with,” he said.

An Iraqi governing body has been appointed, a constitution is being drafted, and local and municipal councils have been established throughout the country, but Iraqis working with coalition authorities have become a favored target of the shadowy resistance forces.

Just in the past week, three Baghdad police stations were bombed, and an Iraqi deputy mayor of Baghdad was killed in a drive-by shooting.

Security seen as key

“If we get the security aspect under control, everything falls into place,” said one U.S. defense official. “If we don’t get the security issue right, nothing else can really happen.”

While the U.S. military keeps running tabs of the number of American troops killed and wounded in Iraq, the toll of Iraqis is much harder to come by.

The Project for Defense Alternatives, a Cambridge, Mass.-based think tank, estimated that some 4,300 Iraqis civilians were killed in the active stage of the war up to April 20. Terrorist strikes since then have taken a heavier toll on native Iraqis than on the ostensible coalition military targets.

All but one of the 35 persons killed in the coordinated suicide bombings in downtown Baghdad last week were Iraqi police officers or civilians — most of them bystanders who just happened to be in the wrong place when the car bombs detonated.

Human Rights Watch, in a report issued in mid-October, said that it had documented some 20 civilian deaths in Baghdad alone since May 1 at the hands of U.S. troops.

Incidents tracked in the report include Iraqis trying to run military checkpoints, accidental shootings of bystanders in fights with resistance forces, and law enforcement actions.

On one battlefield, at least, Bush administration officials readily concede they are on the defensive: the public relations front.

Negative news coverage

Mr. Bush and senior aides have complained repeatedly that the news coverage of the postwar phase has been unduly negative, ignoring substantial economic and social progress while focusing on the terror campaign carried out by a tiny minority of the population, largely centered in the small “Sunni triangle” region around Baghdad.

U.S. officials also insist they did not minimize the postwar problems the coalition would face, even if the level of continuing guerrilla violence was not fully anticipated.

Mr. Bush, in the very speech proclaiming the end of major combat operations May 1, also noted: “We have difficult work to do in Iraq. We are bringing order to parts of that country that remain dangerous.”

Andrew Natsios, USAID administrator, said the reconstruction effort has scored notable successes around the country, from the dredging of the Umm Qasr port in the south to refurbishing of 29 hospitals, 1,500 schools, and 600 primary health centers around the country.

In addition, he told a seminar at the American Enterprise Institute late last month, many of the crises anticipated by both the administration and its prewar critics failed to materialize. There has been no mass starvation, no breakdowns in public health, no mass wave of retaliatory killings aimed at supporters of the old regime.

“The news media report on things that don’t work, on the bad news,” Mr. Natsios said. “That’s just the nature of the business.”

But, he added, “we have not done a good job communicating our story. … And now we have something to tell.”

The situation inside Iraq remains dangerous, as Mr. Bush himself said last week. But the ultimate verdict on the postwar campaign may come in its effect on the larger war on terrorism.

Administration officials insist the destruction of Saddam’s regime has advanced the cause against al Qaeda and other international terror networks targeting the United States and its allies.

Despite the ongoing challenges in Iraq, “I’ll say that the world is more peaceful and more free under my leadership, and America is more secure,” Mr. Bush insisted in his press conference last week.

But a survey issued late last month by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies was critical of the allies’ postwar planning and performance, saying the short-term effect has been to aid radical Islamic groups hostile to the West.

Aiding the terrorists

The U.S. presence in Iraq, “while intimidating national state sponsors of terrorism, in the short term has heightened the Islamist terrorist impulse and heightened recruitment,” the report concluded.

Coalition officials also admit to frustration in their inability to date to obtain solid intelligence on the resistance forces behind both the small-scale daily attacks and the more spectacular operations, such as the bombings of the U.N. and Red Cross sites.

Mr. Rumsfeld, in an Oct. 23 interview with editors and reporters of The Washington Times at the Pentagon, said U.S. officials remain unhappy about the level of cooperation from neighboring Syria and Iran in preventing hostile foreign fighters from crossing into Iraq. But coalition officials have provided little public evidence of hard leads about who is organizing and financing the continuing resistance campaign.

Yonah Alexander, who heads a terrorism research center at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, said the U.S. economic, political and military commitment to Iraq since Mr. Bush’s May 1 speech has made the country inescapably the single most important battleground in the global war on terror.

“Iraq has really become the test case, and a test of American resolve after September 11,” he said. “If we and our allies withdraw, if we repeat the experience of Lebanon in the 1980s, then I think we may be seeing just the beginning of the escalation of violence.”

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