Top Bush administration officials grudgingly acknowledge that their post-Saddam Hussein plan for rebuilding Iraq has been substantially flawed on the security front.
Some defense officials said privately in interviews that the plan in place for security after Baghdad’s fall has been an utter failure. They said it failed to predict any significant resistance from Saddam loyalists, much less the deadly combination of Ba’athist holdouts and foreign terrorists preying daily on American troops.
“Every briefing on postwar Iraq I attended never mentioned any of this,” said a civilian policy adviser.
Since President Bush declared an end to major hostilities on May 1, guerrillas have killed 65 American troops. That is far short of the 112 killed in action during the six-week war to topple Saddam. An additional 78 have died in accidents and other noncombat circumstances since May 1. Since the war began March 19, 177 Americans have been killed in action and 103 in nonhostile actions.
Officials say the prewar miscalculation is providing a new opportunity for the Bush administration. Iraq, like Afghanistan, has become a battlefield for fighting violent Muslim fundamentalists. A second U.S. victory in Iraq, after toppling Saddam, would deliver a significant defeat to Islamist terrorists and perhaps lessen their appeal in the Arab world, officials believe.
This week, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who vigorously defended every aspect of his post-Saddam plan, acknowledged some shortfalls but chalked them up to unforeseeable circumstances.
Asked by a reporter whether conditions in Iraq were deteriorating, the defense secretary said, “With respect to the planning that took place, it began well before there was a decision to go to war. It was extensive. Like any planning, once you hit reality, the plan needs to be adjusted and modified.”
Then Mr. Rumsfeld asked, “Was it possible to anticipate that the battles would take place south of Baghdad and that then there would be a collapse up north, and there would be very little killing and capturing of those folks because they blended into the countryside and they’re still fighting their war?”
Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said in an interview this week with regional reporters that the Bush administration “underestimated” two developments.
“The first is that 35 years of Saddam Hussein’s reign instilled into the hearts and into the souls of the Iraqi people a greater degree of terror than we understood,” Mr. Armitage said. “The second was the nature or the extent to which Iraq had become full of criminal enterprise.”
Mr. Armitage suggested that U.S. forces were facing thousands of resisters when he listed the varied enemy: two divisions of Republican Guard soldiers who did not fight during the invasion, Ansar Islam terrorists, foreign fighters, Ba’athists and “a certain amount of criminal enterprise.”
Richard Perle, a member of the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board, told the Le Figaro, a French daily, that the postwar plan failed to provide for the Iraqis themselves to take control as soon as possible.
“Of course, we haven’t done everything right,” said Mr. Perle, a strong proponent of toppling Saddam. “Mistakes have been made, and there will be others. … Our principal mistake, in my opinion, was that we didn’t manage to work closely with the Iraqis before the war, so that there was an Iraqi opposition capable of taking charge immediately.”
Mr. Rumsfeld and other officials said it was not possible to predict that thousands of Saddam fighters would leave the battlefield unscathed, reorganize and launch a deadly insurgency that would continue 4 months after the fall of Saddam’s statue in Baghdad.
In candid remarks delivered after a fact-finding trip to Iraq, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz said, “There was a plan, but as any military officer can tell you, no plan survives first contact with reality. … Some conditions were worse than we anticipated, particularly in the security area.”
He listed three: Contrary to U.S. hopes, no Iraqi army units defected to the allies where they could be used to impose law and order. Second, the Iraqi police department needed a “massive overhaul” before officers could be put back on the street.
“Third, and worst of all, it was difficult to imagine before the war that the criminal gang of sadists and gangsters who have run Iraq for 35 years would continue fighting, fighting what has been called a guerrilla war,” Mr. Wolfowitz said
Once U.S. Central Command realized it had a guerrilla war on its hands, it changed tactics. It organized a series of sweeps in the area known as the Sunni Triangle north of Baghdad. Soldiers arrested hundreds of Saddam loyalists and foreign fighters, and seized tons of armaments.
By June, commanders also realized they had underestimated the massive caches of weapons that Saddam had stored across the country. Bomb-making equipment, rifles, ammunition and rocket-propelled grenades now seem to be in endless supply.
The resistance’s most effective weapon is the improvised explosive device, or IED. Iraqis place a remotely controlled bomb on a roadside and simply wait for an American convoy to approach. While the 70-ton M1-A1 tank can withstand such explosions, Humvees and trucks cannot.
In July, commanders noticed the guerrillas, or their jihadist allies, had turned to outright terrorism by attacking civilians and assassinating Iraqis who cooperated with the coalition.
“This enemy is not like any enemy we’ve fought before,” Gen. Richard B. Myers, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, told the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention this week. “They are still very shrewd, and they are still evil.”
Lost in the weekly casualty count of American dead is the progress being made. Officials point out that many feared disasters, such as food shortages and oil well fires, haven’t happened. Schools, banks and many businesses are open.
“Our forces helped deliver more than a million tons of food and thousands of tons of medical supplies,” Gen. Myers said. “Of course, there are still many challenges and much room for improvement, but there is no food or medical crisis in Iraq despite dire predictions.”
The death toll went up by another two soldiers yesterday, as IEDs exploded in Baghdad and in the troubled town of Fallujah.
The administration also missed projections on oil revenue. Mr. Wolfowitz said before the war that Iraq’s oil wealth would fund reconstruction. But the coalition discovered that Iraqi wells, refineries and pipelines needed long-term upgrades before they could pump significant amounts of oil. What’s more, looters capitalized on the lack of security by stealing critical oil-pumping gear.