- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 5, 2003

The anti-American, anti-coalition, resistance in Iraq must really be hurting now. At least according to President George W. Bush’s assessment.

Mr. Bush said last week during a White House news conference that increased activity by the resistance was proof it was becoming desperate. In fact, resistance guerrillas appear so desperate now that in a new act of desperation, they shot down an army Chinook helicopter Sunday, killing 16 American soldiers and wounding another 21.

“Bring them on,” the president responded last July 3, when questioned about increasing Iraqi militant attacks against U.S. forces.

This latest incident marks a turning point in the Iraq conflict for two reasons. First, for the obvious and disheartening statistical reason, such as the cold fact that this attack produced the biggest loss of lives for U.S. troops in Iraq since March 23. That occurred during the combat-operations phase of the war, before the fall of Baghdad. But then, it was to be expected, as the war was still raging.

However, since May 1, when the president donned a combat pilot flight suit, landed aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln in a fighter jet, and addressed a gathering of some 5,000 troops under a banner that read “Mission Accomplished,” these types of attacks were not supposed to happen any longer. That was the day the president declared major combat operations over.

Given the rising intensity of attacks perpetrated against U.S. troops in Iraq, now numbering close to 35 per day, with another fatality occurring Tuesday, it would appear safe to conclude that combat operations are far from over. While these may not be “major battles” taking place, the sad fact is that more American troops have now died in Iraq since May 1, than during actual combat operations.

The second reason why this latest attack is worrisome for the Pentagon planners is that it introduces a new phase, and new weapons in the conflict, taking it to a higher level of intensity.

The fact that insurgents possessed shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles is nothing new; that fact was long suspected and reported by the intelligence services. What is novel, however, is that they successfully deployed one, hitting their intended target and opening a new and unfortunate chapter in the Iraq war.

This new chapter is somewhat reminiscent of the way the war in Afghanistan unfolded. Not the one the United States fought against the Taliban shortly after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, but rather the conflict that saw the mujaheedin — with U.S. backing — fight, and defeat the Soviet army. Many of the mujaheedin later became members of the Taliban.

Much as the United States in Vietnam, Somalia and now in Iraq, the Soviets in Afghanistan depended heavily on helicopters to move troops and material around, in this difficult region where it is practically impossible for conventional vehicles to get around.

And the mujaheedin in Afghanistan, including a certain young Saudi national by the name of Osama bin Laden, had themselves a field day shooting down Soviet choppers. This was largely accomplished thanks to weapons, and training, provided by the CIA.

The terrain in Iraq, at least in the so-called “Sunni Triangle,” where most of the anti-American resistance is taking place so far, is quite different from that of Afghanistan. Here, coalition troops can easily get around in conventional vehicles, such as tanks, Humvees, trucks and armored personnel carriers. The danger, though, is that on the ground, troops become far more exposed to attacks from conventional weapons — rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and small arms fire, and this would explain their preference for air transport.

But with this new twist, the military will have to reassess the use of helicopters, particularly those not equipped with anti-missile technology. Similarly, the president may want to reassess his views of the situation in Iraq, which alas, appears to be worsening and not about to get better anytime soon. A clearer analysis of the situation must be formulated.

Unlike the Soviets in Afghanistan who opted to cut their losses and leave the country, the United States today simply does not enjoy that luxury. Abandonment of Iraq is not an option. Given the mess Iraq is now in, leaving the job unfinished would invite further chaos, allowing all sorts of anti-democratic forces to establish a base of operations from which more September 11s could be planned and launched against Europe and the United States. That would make Iraq worse off than Afghanistan ever was. Additionally, rushing creation of the new Iraqi army to allow the United States to declare an early victory and get out may prove just as perilous. In truth, there might be no other alternative than a long occupation that will be costly in lives and dollars.

Claude Salhani is international editor for United Press International.


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