One, Two, Many Messes
by Jim Lobe
April 12, 2004

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While the United States does not look quite yet like the ''pitiful, helpless giant'' that tortured Richard Nixon's imagination during the Vietnam War, the past week's events seem to have moved it very much in that direction.

The week, which was supposed to culminate in celebrations of the first anniversary of Baghdad's ''liberation'' by U.S. forces, ended instead with Marines engaged on several fronts in precisely the kind of urban warfare that they blissfully avoided a year ago, with U.S.-trained Iraqi police and security forces deserting their posts in the face of insurgent challenges, the seizure of at least a half-dozen foreign hostages and the assumptions that underlay a year's worth of "nation-building" in Iraq in a shambles.

''What a mess'', became the dominant refrain when Washington cafe and subway conversations turned to Iraq this week, as the impression that the administration of President George W Bush was taken completely by surprise by the latest turn of events appeared to take hold among the city's residents. Much to the administration's chagrin, "Vietnam" was the most frequently cited metaphor on television.

As right wing Georgia Republican and Bush arch-loyalist Senator Saxby Chambliss confessed Wednesday, the administration ''underestimated just how difficult and complex the job in Iraq would be''.

Like, duh.

Since just last Sunday, some 42 U.S. soldiers have been killed in fighting in the ''Sunni Triangle'', the Shia south and in Baghdad itself. Hundreds of Iraqis have also been killed, including, according to latest reports, as many as 450 in the besieged Sunni city of Fallujah.

Few observers believe that the rag-tag militias and gangs that have taken on U.S. forces pose a serious threat to Washington's vast military might. (And, in a familiar Vietnam-era refrain, U.S. officers insisted that they had won every engagement with the insurgents.)

But by the end of the week, it was clear that military power was, in another Vietnam metaphor, not only losing "hearts and minds", but actually building a stronger insurgency.

Evidence to that effect became clear by mid-week when the media reported Baghdad residents -- Shia as well as Sunni -- lining up to donate blood and relief supplies for Fallujah, the centre of Sunni resistance to the occupation since 13 of its residents were killed by U.S. soldiers during a demonstration almost exactly one year ago.

The political implications, both at home and in Iraq, of the week's fighting -- and the shattered illusions that it revealed -- are enormous.

To begin with, the administration has long insisted that, with the help of 20,000 troops from the "coalition of the willing", and the presence of nearly 80,000 Iraqi police recruited and deployed by the occupation over the past year, it could easily afford to reduce its own military presence in Iraq from 135,000 to 110,000 by June.

But with the uprising by Moqtada Sadr and his Mahdi Army in Baghdad and several southern cities, those plans appear to be out the window.

When challenged by the insurgents, most of Iraq's new security forces either joined them or went home while, aside from Britain, the "coalition of the willing", already anticipating the loss of 1,300 Spanish troops due to last month's elections in Spain, looked shakier than ever.

After losing one soldier, the Ukrainian contingent in Kut retreated to a more secure base (leaving its arsenal to be seized by the Mahdi Army), while several other national contingents confined their troops to base or simply got out of the way.

The net result is that U.S. withdrawal plans have been effectively suspended, and pressure is building on the administration to send as many as 30,000 more troops to bolster a force that suddenly looked beleaguered and vulnerable.

''The uniformed military does not speak out publicly, but the generals are outraged'', reported 'Washington Post' columnist Robert Novak, who has close ties to the Pentagon brass.

But even if the administration agrees to add troops, analysts agree that, given the drastically stepped-up deployments of forces since 9/11 and the already greater-than-anticipated use and poor morale of the army and reserves deployed to Iraq over the past year, they might be very difficult to muster. "Imperial overstretch is a very real factor at this point", one official told IPS this week.

Moreover, any increase in troops risks being seen not only as an unprecedented admission by Bush of fallibility and poor planning, but also as an "escalation" in the war, a definite no-no for an administration that is already consumed with avoiding anything evoking Vietnam less than seven months before the election.

Polling by the Pew Research Centre showed that approval of Bush's performance on Iraq has plunged from 59 percent in January to 40 percent early this week and that 57 percent of the public now believe he has no plan for how to proceed.

"There's a sense that things are perhaps spinning out of control, and that's a very dangerous perception", Carroll Doherty, the Pew report's editor, told the 'Christian Science Monitor'.

A second cherished illusion that has now been shattered is that Sadr was a marginal figure within the Shiite community whose leadership remained committed -- if warily -- to a U.S.-controlled transition, so long as it believed the eventual outcome would reward and empower the community's majority status.

Sadr might indeed have been marginal, but the occupation's own ham-handedness -- in first closing his newspaper and then arresting a senior aide at the same time it prepared an attack on Fallujah -- has clearly empowered him and the anti-occupation cause for which he, and Fallujah, now stand.

All week long, administration and occupation officials insisted that Sadr and his militia, estimated at just a few thousand poorly trained men, could be isolated from the Shia leadership. But as the days passed and the insurgency in the south spread, it became increasingly clear that the opposite was taking place.

Not only did Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, on whom U.S. hopes for Shia acquiescence in the transitional process had increasingly been riding, fail to denounce Sadr, but members of rival militias began rallying to his cause, according to published reports.

Worse, photos of Sadr began appearing in Sunni parts of Baghdad and in and around Fallujah amid reports of growing co-operation between Sunni and Shia rebels that, for U.S. forces, is the most worrisome development to date.

"We have to work very hard to ensure that (Sunni-Shia cooperation) remains at the tactical level (only)", Lt Gen Ricardo Sanchez, the occupation's top commander, told reporters Thursday.

"The unintended result (of cracking down on Sadr the same week as the attack on Fallujah) was that America finally brought Shiites and Sunnis together -- in opposing occupation", noted David Ignatius, a Post columnist who has generally supported U.S. actions in Iraq.

The degree to which the occupation's crackdown had backfired politically against Washington became abundantly clear by Friday night, when even members of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) felt it necessary to distance themselves from their patron.

IGC elder statesman Adnan Pachachi, who is especially close to the State Department, denounced the offensive against Fallujah as "illegal and totally unacceptable", while Iyad Allawi, a prominent Shiite and long-time favorite of the U.S. and British intelligence service, abruptly resigned from the council without explanation, as did the IGC's human rights minister, Abdel Basit Turki.

On Saturday, Mideast historian Juan Cole wrote in his Internet journal that other council members had either fled the country or were on the verge of resigning. He predicted, "an incipient collapse of the U.S. government of Iraq".

According to Ignatius, "U.S. military forces in Iraq this week sadly became what they have been trying for a year to avoid becoming -- an army of occupation fighting a bitter urban war against a broad Iraqi insurgency."

Jim Lobe is a political analyst with Foreign Policy in Focus (online at www.fpif.org) and a correspondent with Inter Press Service, where this article first appeared. He can be reached at: jlobe@starpower.net

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