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Battle for Iraqi Hearts and Minds Suspended in Face of Escalating Resistance
Published on Monday, April 12, 2004 by the Toronto Star
A Deadly Climb
Battle for Iraqi Hearts and Minds Suspended in Face of Escalating Resistance
White House maintains business-as-usual facade
by Tim Harper

WASHINGTON—One year ago, when an overly zealous U.S. Marine draped the American flag over a statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad, military brass here shuddered at the unfortunate symbolism.

U.S. Marines place an American flag on a statue of Saddam Hussein, seen in this image from video, Wednesday, April 9, 2003, in Baghdad, Iraq, as Marines help Iraqis trying to topple the statue. (AP Photo/APTN)
This was not the message of liberators. This was the act of occupiers, of conquerors.

Now, following a week in which the war in Iraq took a deadly turn for the worse for increasingly isolated U.S. troops, it has become clear that brazenly waving the Stars and Stripes was unwittingly prescient.

The battle for hearts and minds in Iraq has been suspended, replaced by a fight for territory and control. And there are fears here that the United States is on the precipice of war with a national Iraqi resistance united in resentment of its occupier.

American troops are moving into areas under the command of allied forces that have proved ill equipped to deal with the intensity of battle in some cases.

Beleaguered troops preparing for reunions with loved ones at home are being told they must stay; those in the United States are preparing to return to battle more quickly than anticipated.

Reinforcements are being readied. The retired generals with their maps and pointers are back on U.S. cable news networks.

In the capitals of countries with troops fighting alongside Americans, there is increasing political pressure to withdraw, particularly in Japan, where the tense drama played out for the lives of three Japanese hostages has shaken resolve.

Iraqi police forces have crumbled under pressure and the inadequate training of Iraqi military forces, hastily put in uniform, has been glaringly obvious.

The bigger concern now is that the homegrown military has been infiltrated by insurgents, some of whom may have lured four private American security contractors to their gruesome deaths in Falluja.

Some 81 days before President George W. Bush wants to turn over power to Iraqis — but to which ones and how? — U.S. troops have taken their heaviest combat casualties in the year since rolling into Baghdad.

In Falluja, at least 450 Iraqis dead, five Marines killed in urban, house-to-house combat.

In Ramadi, 12 Marines ambushed and killed. In Kut, in Sadr City, in Karbala, deaths and questions as to who is in control.

Back in America, images of kneeling soldiers praying around a dead comrade; a tired Marine carrying a friend in a body bag; an American, dead or badly wounded, being pulled from a tank.

Fifty-six Americans were killed in Iraq in the past week, 650 since the invasion began in March, 2003.

In response to this, the Bush administration's public face is studied calm.

The chaos is routinely reduced to the simplest of analogies.

"This is the civilized world fighting against evil," White House communications director Dan Bartlett said on NBC's Today show Friday.

His boss was almost defiant in his determination to spend an extended Easter weekend at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, after a couple of campaign appearances earlier in the week during which he characterized the renewed bloodshed as an uprising by bad people who hate Americans because they are free.

Iraqis celebrate near a burning truck attacked by insurgents on the highway leading the Iraqi capital to Baghdad's International Airport, Monday, April 12, 2004. Two US soldiers and seven US contractors working for a Halliburton subsidiary are unaccounted for in Iraq , Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez said. (AFP/Antonio Scorza)
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld took his philosophical verbosity around bends, down cul-de-sacs and into hairpin turns at Pentagon briefings.

The increased fighting is a test of wills, Rumsfeld said, and it's a test the United States will win.

But when pressed, he added: "We're trying to explain how things are going, and they are going as they are going.

"And we're here pointing out what's taking place in the country. Some things are going well and some things obviously are not going well.

"You're going to have good days and bad days, as we've said from the outset. And this is a moment in Iraq's path towards a democratic and a free system.

"And it is one moment, and there will be other moments. And there will be good moments and there will be less good moments."

While Bush toured his Texas compound Thursday with leaders of the National Rifle Association and granted an interview to The Ladies Home Journal, his top commander in Iraq, Gen. John Abizaid, was telling reporters he is considering delaying the rotation of some troops back to the United States and ordering others to a second Iraq tour ahead of schedule.

"Everything is on the table," he said.

A year ago, in the euphoria following the fall of Baghdad, military planners envisaged no more than 30,000 Americans on the ground in Iraq by the following April.

There are 135,000 there today.

Bush has spent 234 days at Crawford since becoming president, according to a CBS News tally — he was scheduled to speak today at Fort Hood, a Texas military base that has taken recent casualties in Iraq.

Democratic congressional leaders are saying it is time for the president to come clean with Americans about the enormity of the task at hand in Iraq, the length of time American troops can be expected to remain there and identify the group or groups that Washington wants to lead a new Iraqi government on June 30.

Despite the choreographed, business-as-usual stance by the White House, there are signs of concern behind the scenes.

Bush, who remains in contact with his inner circle via a secure video link at the ranch, spoke to Russian President Vladimir Putin Thursday and British Prime Minister Tony Blair the day before. Blair is also scheduled to meet face-to-face with the president next Friday at the White House.

Meanwhile, the downturn in American fortunes in Iraq presents a tricky trail for Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, the presumptive Democratic nominee in November's presidential election.

While doing a round of interviews to publicize his latest economic initiative last week, he was reluctantly drawn deeper and deeper into the Iraqi mess.

In his responses, it appeared Kerry has little to offer in terms of a quick solution to a worsening war he voted for in Congress.

He consistently raises questions about why Americans are fighting a war virtually alone in a Middle East country, asks why traditional allies have turned their backs on the Bush administration and promises an international presence in Iraq if he wins the White House in November.

"Not since the Vietnam War have I seen such arrogant American foreign policy," Kerry said.

His Democratic congressional colleagues, however, have been unsparing in ringing alarm bells and ratcheting up their criticism of the White House during the past week.

It started with Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy's declaration that Iraq has become "Bush's Vietnam."

Delaware Democratic Senator Joe Biden likened the surge in fighting to the 1968 Tet offensive in Vietnam, an assault easily repelled by a mighty U.S. military but one that turned American public opinion against the war forever.

"The Tet offensive took the mask off, said to the American people, `My Lord, we don't control there. We don't have a plan,'" Biden said.

Robert Byrd, the veteran Democrat from West Virginia, in a Senate speech and op-ed articles, has called for an exit strategy for American troops.

Military planners looking for reinforcements remind him of an earlier conflict gone wrong, Byrd said.

"Surely, I am not the only one who hears echoes of Vietnam in this development.

"The war in Iraq was not destined to follow the script of some idealized cowboy movie of President Bush's youth, where the good guys ride off into a rose-tinted sunset, all strife settled and all wrongdoing avenged.

"The war in Iraq is real, and as any soldier can tell you, reality is messy and bloody and scary."

Republicans rallied around their president, even if some may be privately wondering how this year's re-election plan could play out against such a deadly backdrop.

Georgia Senator Saxby Chambliss questioned the patriotism of Democrats who have been pounding home the Vietnam analogy, suggesting it only gives encouragement to America's enemies.

Chambliss said insurgents could use such comments to convince Iraqis who have not yet joined battle that American morale is decaying.

A comparison of Iraq and Vietnam "is the type of statement that is foolish and should never be made by anyone in the political realm in our country in a time of great crisis and great confrontation over the issue of freedom and democracy," Chambliss said.

That drew a rejoinder from Democratic Senate leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, who said that, in times of crisis, free speech should not only be tolerated but encouraged.

The Democratic criticism was to be expected, but Bush should be more concerned with some of the talk coming from his usually loyal right-wing commentators.

Perhaps the best known of them, Fox News personality Bill O'Reilly, was running out of patience, he told his audience last week, making a comparison between Vietnam and an Iraq where Americans increasingly fight on behalf of a population that will not help itself.

"If these people won't help us, we need to get out in an orderly manner," O'Reilly said. "If, come next October, Iraq continues to be a big mess, President Bush might very well lose the election.

"Mr. Bush and his advisers must know that. And that's why there's still a chance that the Iraqi radicals will be beaten.

"But time is running out, both for Iraq and for the Bush administration."

There is a famous story from the Vietnam War, which has Lyndon Johnson watching the CBS Evening News when Walter Cronkite tells viewers that, contrary to White House spin, Vietnam was not under control.

"If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost the war," Johnson is said to have remarked.

Bill O'Reilly is not Walter Cronkite and Iraq is not Vietnam. But the story offers one more analogy for those making the case that this war is headed in that direction.

© Copyright Toronto Star Newspapers Limited


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