While the world's attention has been focused for the past 10 days on the catastrophic tsunamis in South Asia and the subsequent relief efforts, the situation for the United States and its dwindling number of allies in Iraq appears to have worsened.
The administration of President George W. Bush and its supporters continue to insist that elections to a constitutional assembly scheduled for Jan. 31 will turn the tide against the insurgency, even as key figures in Baghdad's interim government, as well as outside analysts, are expressing growing doubts about whether the poll should even go ahead, given the deteriorating security situation.
The insurgency, by virtually all accounts, is actually growing.
Indeed, two weeks after a suicide bomber killed 18 U.S. troops and contractors, as well as three Iraqi security personnel, at a military base in Mosul, the ambush and killing in broad daylight Tuesday of the governor of Baghdad, Ali Haidary, raised new questions about whether even senior officials could be adequately protected less than four weeks before the scheduled elections.
Haidary, a staunch U.S. ally, was the highest-ranking official to be killed by insurgents since last May.
On the same day, five U.S. soldiers were killed in several incidents around Iraq -- the worst toll since the Mosul bombing. And the number of U.S. wounded in Iraq since the March 2003 invasion, more than half of whom have not returned to active duty due to the gravity of their injuries, surpassed the 10,000 mark.
Meanwhile, Iraq's interim president, Ghazi Yawar, who Bush himself had quoted just a week ago as being determined to proceed with the elections, expressed renewed doubts Tuesday, telling Reuters that the United Nations should ”stand up for their responsibilities and obligations by saying whether (holding elections) is possible or not”. He said it was a ”tough call”.
Yawar spoke a day after President Ayad Allawi himself telephoned Bush on the latter's first day back at work after the Christmas holidays about what White House officials described as ”impediments” to pulling off the elections given the prevailing insecurity and the growing likelihood that the Sunni population -- about 20 percent of Iraq's voters -- is unlikely to participate.
Two days before, another long-time U.S. favorite who played a leading role in the transition from the formal occupation to the formation of the interim government last June, Adnan Pachachi, expressly urged the administration to put off the vote to enhance the chances for Sunni participation and get the security situation under control. ”That situation has deteriorated significantly,” stressed the veteran Sunni politician and former foreign minister in a column published in the Washington Post entitled 'Delay the Elections'.
And, as if to underline the security problem, the interim government's intelligence chief, Gen. Mohammed Shahwani, told a Saudi newspaper this week that he believed that U.S. and Iraqi forces were facing as many as 40,000 ”hard-core fighters” -- twice Washington's previous biggest estimate -- backed by as many as 150,000 to 200,000 others who acted as part-time guerillas, spies, and logistics personnel. He blamed the growth in the insurgency on a ”resurgent Baath Party” under the direction of former officials, some of whom he said, are based in Syria.
”I think the resistance is bigger than the U.S. military in Iraq,” Shahwani said.
If even remotely accurate -- and U.S. officials were quick to cast doubt on Shahwani's claims, although they did not deny them either -- those numbers should discourage the U.S. military, since basic doctrine calls for a 10:1 troop-rebel ratio to control and eventually defeat an insurgency. Washington currently has 150,000 troops in Iraq.
What's worse, the insurgency, by virtually all accounts, is actually growing.
”Until now, the best efforts of the United States and the emerging Iraqi army have not succeeded in preventing the growth of the insurgency,” noted Robert Killebrew, a retired Army colonel and counter-insurgency specialist, who believes that even if the elections come off, Washington may well soon face the greater danger of a region-wide insurgency.
Killebrew, whose theories will be featured next week at a forum at the influential neo-conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI), argues that the only way to redress the situation is to increase Washington's, as well as the Iraqi government's, troop strength, close the borders with Iran and Syria, and threaten Iraq's neighbors with retaliation if they provide support or safe haven to the insurgency. He also favors substantially expanding the U.S. military as a signal of ”national will”.
But to other counter-insurgency specialists who believe that Washington might still snatch some modicum of victory from the jaws of defeat, increasing U.S. forces and influence in Iraq at this point is likely to be counter-productive, if only because Washington's actions have so thoroughly alienated so much of Iraq's population.
”The beginning of wisdom,” wrote James Dobbins, an analyst at the Rand Corporation who served as U.S. special envoy in a host of hotspots from the Balkans to Afghanistan, in the latest 'Foreign Affairs' magazine, ”is to recognize that the ongoing war in Iraq is not one that the United States can win.
”As a result of its initial miscalculations, misdirected planning, and inadequate preparation, Washington has lost the Iraqi people's confidence and consent, and it is unlikely to win them back,” according to Dobbins, who argued that the situation can still be saved ”but only by moderate Iraqis and only if they concentrate their efforts on gaining the cooperation of neighboring states, securing the support of the broader international community, and quickly reducing their dependence on the United States.”
From Anthony Cordesman, a highly regarded military expert on the Middle East at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), also argues that eventual success will depend on Iraqis themselves taking control, mostly through the creation of ”larger and more effective Iraqi forces as soon as possible” and far more effective governance than the interim regime has been capable of to date.
”The nature of both the insurgency in Iraq and Iraqi politics makes it all too clear...that only Iraqi forces can minimize the anger and resentment at U.S. forces, give the emerging Iraqi government legitimacy, and support efforts to make that government and the Iraqi political system more inclusive,” Cordesman wrote in his latest analysis. ”It is also clear that even the segments of Iraqi society that tolerate Coalition forces as a necessity today want them out as quickly as is practical”.
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