LONDON -- The situation in Iraq is "disintegration verging on collapse," said Richard Holbrooke, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, on the last day of April. It was a month that saw more American troops killed than during last year's invasion, a decisive U.S. defeat in the siege of Fallujah, and horrific revelations about the torture and sexual abuse of Iraqi prisoners by both American and British soldiers.
It may be years yet before the helicopters pluck the last Americans off the roof of the Baghdad embassy (or a post-Bush administration might still manage a more graceful exit), but basically the game is up.
One hundred thirty-eight American soldiers were killed in Iraq in April, and over 1,000 wounded. The ABC network's decision to devote its "Nightline" program on Friday to showing pictures and reading out the names of the 721 American soldiers who have died in Iraq was not driven by hostility to the Bush administration. The producers were just responding to what their audience was feeling -- but it spoke volumes about the state of American public opinion.
Meanwhile, any hope of getting the consent of Iraqis to a permanent U.S. military and political presence in the country has gone gurgling down the drain. It is still not clear who ordered the siege of Fallujah in response to the killing and mutilation of four American "security contractors" (mercenaries) at the end of March, but it was a blunder that will be studied in military staff colleges for decades to come, the lesson being: When there is no way that you can succeed, it is wiser not to reveal your weakness by trying and failing.
There was no way that U.S. Marines could occupy Fallujah and destroy the local resistance forces without killing thousands of Iraqis, most of them civilians. There was no way that they could ever identify and capture the men who killed and mutilated the "contractors." Besieging the city was an emotional response that made no military or political sense, as they realized about three weeks too late.
"They" may be Paul Bremer's occupation regime in Baghdad, or it may be the micromanagers back in the Pentagon who persistently usurp command functions in Iraq; the inquest that will finally lay the blame for this fatal move will only happen after U.S. troops retreat from Iraq months or years from now.
But in only one month they have inadvertently succeeded in reviving Iraqi pride and national identity on the basis of a shared anti-Americanism, and given the whole Arab and Muslim world nightly television lessons in how popular resistance can defeat U.S. power.
After the first week's fighting killed the better part of a thousand people in Fallujah (with Arab TV crews in the city making it clear that a high proportion of the victims were civilians killed by American snipers), somebody in the U.S. occupation forces realized the extent of the disaster and insisted on the talks that eventually let the U.S. forces walk away without launching their final assault. But the price, by then, was handing the city over to a locally born general, Jassim Mohammed Saleh, who was commanding one of Saddam Hussein's Republican Guards divisions only 13 months ago, and to a force consisting entirely of former Iraqi soldiers living in the city.
Gen. Saleh drove into Fallujah on Friday wearing his old Iraqi army uniform and waving the old Iraqi flag that the puppet "Iraqi Governing Council" has just abolished. The people of Fallujah had "rejected" the U.S. Marines, he said, and both he and local U.S. Marine commanders made it clear that the new emergency military force would include some of the resistance fighters in the city. On Sunday the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Richard Myers, insisted that Gen. Saleh had not yet been given the job, but that just put the extent of the disarray in the U.S. military on public display.
Fallujah has become a no-go zone for American troops, and that is also the likely outcome of the parallel showdown in the holy city of Najaf between American troops and the militia of radical Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Making these deals does less damage to the U.S. position than plowing on with unwinnable confrontations, but the damage has already been very great. The whole Arab world is absorbing the lesson that U.S. military power has its limits -- at the same time as it seethes in fury and humiliation at the brutal abuse of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. and British forces.
One picture says it all: A 21-year-old female American soldier grinning cockily at the camera, a cigarette dangling from her mouth, as she points in mockery at a naked male Iraqi prisoner who is being forced to masturbate by his captors. You could not come up with an image better calculated to enrage and alienate Muslim opinion if you hired all the ad agencies in the world.
So the entire U.S. neoconservative adventure in the Middle East, never very plausible, is now doomed, though it will drag on in a broken-backed way for some time to come. Even the option of handing Iraq over to the United Nations and replacing American troops there with Muslim troops under U.N. command, still viable a month ago, will soon be foreclosed unless U.N. officials take a firmer stand against the occupation regime. It is going to get very messy.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.
© Copyright 2004 Star Tribune.