MANKATO -- Thirteen months after the invasion, most Americans are still trying to figure out the real reason George W. Bush invaded Iraq.
The Bush administration has yet to find the advertised weapons of mass destruction.
It hasn't done much better finding terrorists, either -- unless it counts the ones it has produced by the invasion.
According to a recent University of Pennsylvania Annenberg election survey, 57 percent of Americans polled believe the invasion of Iraq has increased the terrorist threat to the United States, not decreased it.
This shows that the American electorate can be remarkably astute, even in the face of consistently misleading information from an administration that has portrayed the war in Iraq as part of the war on terrorism.
According to press reports, fewer than 5 percent of the 20,000 people captured or killed by coalition forces in Iraq are foreigners. This means that over 95 percent of the so-called terrorists are Iraqis, which is contrary to previous claims that foreign terrorists were flooding into Iraq.
The administration's tactic has been to label Iraqi insurgents as terrorists, implying that -- like the war on Al-Qaida -- this invasion was a war of necessity.
After a year of searching through the old regime's records, the administration has produced no evidence of a Saddam Hussein/Al-Qaida connection. Similarly, no Al-Qaida terrorist has been publicly identified as having been killed or captured in Iraq. The president himself announced this past Sept. 17 that Saddam was not involved in 9/11.
What we are facing in Iraq is an indigenous insurgency, aided by a handful of foreign jihadists.
The label makes a real difference on the ground. On one hand, if the Marines believe they are fighting only terrorists in Fallujah -- people who will use violence indiscriminately even against civilians, and who threaten American security -- that could justify a military approach, despite the risk of "collateral damage." That's the euphemism for killing or wounding civilians who happen to be in the vicinity.
On the other hand, if the Marines were to treat the Fallujah resisters as insurgents with political demands -- the key one being to end the U.S. occupation -- that would dictate a political approach, one that assured the Sunnis of a place in the new order of things and of our intentions to depart Iraq. A just-released Gallup poll of 4,000 Iraqis shows that 71 percent consider the U.S. presence an occupation, and 57 percent want us to leave immediately.
It's clear from the fighting, the artillery and gunship attacks that the military approach has prevailed thus far -- although there are preliminary reports that a political agreement may have been reached.
Whichever way we look at it, 131 Americans died and more than 1,000 were wounded last month. Iraqi hospitals report that 600 civilians were killed around Fallujah. Does the administration believe that Iraqis in Fallujah are pleased with the brand of freedom U.S. forces have brought to Iraq?
The situation is even more volatile around Najaf, a Shiite holy city. A decision to apply military force against insurgents there could turn all the Shiite communities of the Middle East against us.
In adopting their dangerously muddle-headed approach, coalition forces have taken their cue directly from the administration, which constantly conflates the insurgency with terrorism in order to justify the invasion.
Most recently, the president did so in his April 13 press conference: "The terrorist who takes hostages, or plants a roadside bomb near Baghdad is serving the same ideology of murder that kills innocent people on trains in Madrid and murders children on buses in Jerusalem... ."
Having lumped terrorists and Iraqi insurgents together, he went on to charge that they were about to try something worse than 9/11: "...they seek weapons of mass destruction, to blackmail and commit murder on a massive scale."
Does Bush seriously believe the Iraqi insurgents intend to develop WMD? This is one more effort to manipulate public opinion in order to justify an unprovoked attack that has proven to be a disastrous mistake.
Government officials have established that Al-Qaida has underground cells in more than 60 countries, including the U.S. and most Western European countries. How many countries are on the Bush administration's hit list for future invasions?
Bush and the coalition authorities need to face reality and recognize that the violence will subside only after U.S. forces are withdrawn. This should be done as expeditiously as possible, leaving any peacekeeping to the United Nations.
The United States is so radioactive in the Middle East at this point that it is hard to envision any possible benefits that can accrue from our continued presence. It is not hard to envision many more dead and maimed people if we stay.
Tom Maertens worked on the White House staff under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
© Copyright 2004 Star Tribune.