- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 4, 2003

With American casualties in Iraq surpassing the number of killed during the actual offensive, a debate is beginning to brew whether there is a need to dispatch more troops to Iraq or not. Some say yes, while others, such as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, say no, the current numbers can adequately do the job. The reality, however, lies somewhere in between. Following the horrific blast at the Najaf Imam Ali mosque on Aug. 20, which killed Ayatollah Syed Bakr al-Hakim and some 100 others, and the bombing of the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad on Aug. 19 that killed its representative, Sergio Vieira de Mello, plus an additional 20 people, some voices argued for reinforcing “boots on the ground.” The Najaf and U.N. attacks, which came on the heels of a similar attack on the Jordanian embassy and the sabotage of major water and oil conduits, as well as another car bomb outside a Baghdad police station on Sept. 2, reinforces the belief that the current level of troops — reported to be somewhere around 130,000 U.S. plus 20,000 British — is not enough for the task at hand. Others argued for more international troops from Europe, India and other friendly nations that would allow American soldiers to be less visible, thus less prone to attack. The counter argument opined that more troops would simply offer those targeting coalition troops greater opportunities to kill American (and other allied) soldiers. The attack on the United Nations, after all, was not aimed at American troops. There is, indeed, something to be said for that. In truth, it’s not more American troops that are needed in Iraq, but rather, speeding up of the process required in order to replace coalition troops with local forces. In term of simple numbers, Iraq had the largest army in the Middle East before the U.S.-led invasion abolished it last April. According to a 2003 CIA estimate, Iraq had about 3.5 million men fit for military service. Deduct from that number those who were killed and disabled in the war and those who were too closely linked to the old regime in one way or another. Filtered down, you should easily come up with at least 100,000 able men. Why not mobilize them? And if you really want to revolutionize the country, allow Iraqi women into the armed forces, too. That should easily provide an additional 5,000 to 10,000 troops. By now, almost five months into the occupation of Iraq, coalition commanders — with assistance from their friends in the Iraqi National Council — should have had no trouble identifying a cadre of friendly Iraqi officers able to lead a reformed military to take over control of much of the country’s security. At least as far as high-profile assignments go, such as the guarding of government buildings, major intersections, bridges and other sensitive installations. Let the Iraqi people feel they have direct involvement in the rebuilding of their nation, instead of appearing as bystanders with little or no say. The current situation in Iraq leaves little room for doubt; something needs to be done to prevent the country from becoming a refuge for Islamist militants and other groups opposed to democratic reform. And it needs to be done quickly. Every day that goes by draws more and more anti-American forces to the region. So much has been acknowledged by U.S. intelligence agencies.

A note to those who opposed the U.S. unilateral policy or who might regard U.S. policy in the Middle East as neo-colonialist imperialism: Before you begin to applaud U.S. headaches in Iraq, be advised that continued unrest in Iraq will also weaken the rest of the region. An unstable Iraq will only endanger the whole Middle East. The attack on the United Nations has changed the face of this war.

“If the Americans pull out now, it will open the area to the forces of darkness, the nihilists, the [Osama] bin Laden supporters, and others who will regress the area into the dark ages,” said a seasoned Middle East observer.

Or, as President Bush pointed out to an American Legion convention in St. Louis on Aug. 26, “Retreat in the face of terror would only invite further and bolder attacks.” What we are seeing in Iraq in many ways is a repeat performance of what happened in Lebanon in 1982-83 when a multinational force was dispatched to restore order in that war-ravaged country. Lebanon, at the time, was torn apart along sectarian lines with Christian militias opposed to a fractured Muslim-Leftist-Palestinian alliance, much as the Shi’ites, Sunnis, Assyrians, Kurds and Turkmen are in Iraq. The difference in Iraq is that the various factions are not fighting each other at the level the Lebanese were, at least not yet. Following the bombing of the Marine and French army barracks attacks in Beirut 20 years ago next month, the multinational force decided to cut its losses and leave, abandoning Lebanon to its own predicament. The Bush administration, however, does not have that luxury in Iraq. Abandonment in its current state is not an option. Which is why two things need to happen with haste. First, more international troops should be brought in, because security is a concern. The attack on the U.N. building demonstrated that this was not simply an assault on U.S. forces, but also on the international community. And second, Iraqis should be given a more direct role in the running of their country sooner rather than later.

Claude Salhani is international editor for United Press International.

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