A vice is slowly beginning to close on US and British political leaders who ordered or justified the launching of war on Iraq. This potentially fatal squeeze is the product of two opposed dynamics. One is the dawning realization that the war will not be over quickly, may indeed drag on for months, and will certainly not be the "cakewalk" predicted by Kenneth Adelman of the Pentagon's infamous defense policy board. The other is the prospect of an accelerating humanitarian crisis.
Several factors, notably fierce Iraqi resistance and US miscalculations about the number of ground combat forces required, have forced a slowdown in the offensive. Around Basra, indeed, and south of Baghdad, the advance has effectively been halted for several days. A tactical reassessment is now under way against a backdrop of escalating political recriminations in Washington and increasingly, between London and the US. The top US infantry commander in Iraq, Lieutenant-General William Wallace, admits the campaign is not progressing as expected, echoing concerns expressed by retired senior generals. Whitehall defense officials are urging the sort of patient, circumspect approach adopted by British forces outside Basra. The evident fear is that any precipitate ground assault on Baghdad and a subsequent descent into street-fighting by outnumbered, fatigued and poorly supplied US troops could be disastrous.
Even the hawkish US defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, principal author of the controversial "combat lite" strategy and a man whose reputation and career are very much on the line, appears to be hesitating. The champion of the "forward-leaning" posture is now in danger of falling flat on his face. His boss, George Bush, who at Camp David this week seemed to be asleep while standing up, insists a relentless America will prevail "no matter how long it takes". Down in Tampa, that sounds like leadership. But it is actually an amazing admission that the US military behemoth no longer entirely controls the timetable or pace of a war begun at a moment and in a place of its own particular choosing.
That the Pentagon has been obliged to double its ground combat forces after only a week, and must now wait for them to deploy, is a matter for considerable political shock and awe. This military deceleration now runs directly counter to that other powerful dynamic: a quickening human tragedy. Put simply, the longer the war rages, the more acute the suffering of the Iraqi people will become. And while the regime remains undefeated, the more deeply problematic will be efforts to distribute aid and the more furious the international outcry.
The prospect of Iraqis dying in large numbers from dehydration, or malnutrition or disease is still hopefully some way off; the UN estimates a five-week food supply. But problems with refugees and tainted water supply are beginning to emerge around Basra and Nassiriya. Aid agencies, unable to enter most of the country while fighting continues, say they cannot assess the status of the population. However much money is raised, and the UN has set a $2.2bn overall target, it is useless as long as organized, safe distribution remains impractical. Last night's decision to give the UN secretary-general temporary control of a resumed oil-for-food program and $10bn worth of uncompleted contracts will also have a merely symbolic, political importance if secure distribution routes to 45,000 outlets are not swiftly reopened.
The Iraqi regime is not helping, cynically using the plight of civilians as a propaganda tool. The US military and the US government's aid agency are not helping either by trying to direct the relief effort and thereby potentially compromising independent NGOs with far superior expertise. Yesterday's arrival of the British aid ship, Sir Galahad, at Umm Qasr, while welcome in itself, highlights another difficulty. This is Iraq's only deep-water port, the size of Dover. It will have to cope with the competing demands of military and humanitarian supplies for the duration and beyond.
Britain has earmarked £210m for humanitarian work in a total war budget of £3bn; the US $2.4bn, out of $74.7bn. Yet even with the best will in the world, aid efforts will have limited impact while the conflict continues inconclusively. This is why, with the war lengthening and slowing, Iraq's human crisis seems certain to intensify. This is the inexorably closing vice that has the power to destroy thousands of innocent lives and some very prominent political careers.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003