WASHINGTON - Readers of the Pentagon's 'Early Bird' news file, a daily compilation of around 50 stories circulated throughout the U.S. national-security bureaucracy, could be forgiven Monday for reaching for the Rolaids, a popular over-the-counter medication for queasy stomachs.
As with the Jun. 10 edition, the file's lead stories all dealt with Iraq. Indeed, news about Iraq, which faded to the inside pages after the Jan. 30 elections and well into the spring, has made a surprisingly strong comeback in the Early Bird of late, just like the Iraqi insurgency itself.
Monday's first story, from USA Today and headlined ”Poll: USA Is Losing Patience on Iraq”, concerned the most recent Gallup survey which found that nearly 60 percent of the public now favors a partial or complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq in what the newspaper called ”the most downbeat view of the war since it began in 2003.”
Item number two, ”Officers, Military Can't End Insurgency,” published in the Philadelphia Inquirer, began: ”A growing number of senior American military officers in Iraq have concluded there is no long-term military solution to an insurgency that has killed thousands of Iraqis and more than 1,300 U.S. troops in the last two years.”
Despite Vice President Dick Cheney's confident assertion two weeks ago that the insurgency was in its ”last throes,” the story featured one particularly telling observation from a U.S. officer who works with the task force overseeing training of Iraqi troops, regarding how easy it was for the insurgency to replenish its forces. ”We can't kill them,” he said. ”When I kill one, I create three.”
The third story, from the New York Times, seemed designed to play on the tension created in the first story. ”As Iraqi Army Trains, Word in the Field Is It May Take Years” ran the headline. It was followed by text that noted that top generals who four months ago predicted that Washington could begin withdrawing its 140,000 troops by the end of this year now say ”it could be two years, perhaps longer.”
That message was positively upbeat compared to the lead story in the Jun. 10 Early Bird headlined ”Building Iraq's Army: Mission Improbable” co-written by the only fluent Arab-speaker in the mainstream U.S. press, Anthony Shadid.
That nearly 3,000-word Washington Post article, which one Pentagon official called ”devastating,” concerned the enormous political and cultural gaps that divided U.S. troops from the Sunni Arab soldiers with whom they are paired in northern Iraq where the insurgency is strongest. While one reporter was embedded with the U.S. troops, Shadid stayed with the counterpart Iraqi unit over three days.
Aside from documenting the pervasive sense of distrust and contempt that the two groups of soldiers had for each other, as well as the vastly superior equipment, protection, housing and technology available to the U.S. troops, the story also recounted incidents of outright insubordination by the Iraqi unit.
”The journey revealed fundamental, perhaps irreconcilable differences over everything from the reluctance of Muslim soldiers to search mosques and homes to basic questions of life-style,” according to the story, which quoted one U.S. reserve officer mocking official White House and Pentagon predictions that Iraqi security forces will be able to ready to soon fight the insurgency on their own.
”(F)rom the ground, I can say with certainty they won't be ready before I leave,” Lt. Kenrick Cato told the Post. ”And I know I'll be back in Iraq, probably in three or four years. And I don't think they'll be ready then.”
Other lead stories from last week offered little comfort to Early Bird readers. The second story, ”Militia Backed by Iraqi Leaders Accused in Attacks” from the Philadelphia Inquirer, started: ”A militant Shiite Muslim group with close ties to Iran has gained enormous power since Iraq's January election and now is accused of conducting a terror campaign against Iraq's Sunni Muslim minority that includes kidnappings and murders.”
The third story, ”Insurgency Seen Forcing Change in Iraq Strategy” from the Boston Globe, offered no relief, noting, ”Two years after the toppling of Saddam Hussein, the Iraq conflict has evolved into a classic guerrilla war...”
It also noted that, despite U.S. estimates that it has killed or captured 1,000 to 3,000 insurgents a month, the number of daily attacks have doubled to 70 -- as have the number of suicide attacks -- in just the past four months, and that the current death toll for U.S. soldiers is running at about two a day.
The Globe also wrote about a recent internal poll that found that nearly 45 percent of the Iraqi population supports the insurgent attacks, while only 15 percent of those polled said they strongly supported the U.S.-led coalition. So much for the notion, so eagerly embraced by senior administration officials, that an elected government would automatically translate into opposition to the insurgency.
Indeed, it now appears that whatever political gains were made as a result of the election have now been largely squandered as a result of the growing alienation of the Sunni population, which is why another New York Times story about efforts to bring Sunnis into the constitution-writing process, ”Sunni-Shiite Quarrel Edges Closer to Political Stalemate,” offered no relief to the growing pessimism. It was also given prominence in Monday's Early Bird.
As reflected in USA Today's poll story, all of these stories have affected public opinion which, aside from a brief spurt of optimism after the January elections, has become steadily more negative since February.
Indeed, last week, a Washington Post-ABC News poll showed that for the first time since the war began, more than half of the public believes that the U.S. invasion of Iraq had not made the U.S. more safe, and nearly 40 percent described the situation there now as analogous to the Vietnam War.
”The steady drip of negative news from Iraq is significantly undermining support for the U.S. military operation there,” noted Andy Kohout, director of the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, which released its own latest findings.
The Pew poll also found an all-time high of 46 percent of the public favoring a withdrawal from Iraq, although, unlike the Gallup poll, it didn't distinguish between a partial and a complete pull-out.
The fear that Iraq could turn out to be similar to Vietnam has also gained traction, according to Kohout, whose latest poll showed that 35 percent of the public, including a disproportionate number of citizens who say they follow Iraq news particularly closely, believes that the situation will turn out like Vietnam, while 47 percent still believe the U.S. can stabilize the situation.
Stephen Kull of the University of Maryland's Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) believes the latest polling data do not indicate a ”tipping point” where the Bush administration may be forced to withdraw, in part because no credible leader has stepped forward with an alternative plan that can assure the public that withdrawal would not make the situation worse.
”But it does create a clear political problem for the president as it affects his own favorability rating, and then Congress doesn't feel it has to be as responsive to him,” said Kull.
Indications that this is indeed beginning to happen, however, are becoming more plentiful. Two weeks ago, the House of Representatives voted 300-128 to defeat a resolution that would have required the president to present a plan for withdrawal from Iraq, but a 122-79 majority of Democrats voted for it, along with five Republicans, including three who had supported the original decision to go to war.
In fact, Congress appears to be lagging behind the public on the issue. Some 72 percent of Democrats, 65 percent of independents and 41 percent of Republicans say they favor a partial or complete withdrawal, according to the Gallup poll.
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