The U.S. Dilemma: Bombs or Blackboards


As America's political and military forces in Iraq pursue their separate agendas, there is increasing danger that armed sweeps and air strikes against Saddam's remnant troops are proving to be counterproductive. With mounting civilian casualties, more and more Iraqi political leaders are threatening to boycott U.S. plans for a provisional government, as well as for restoring essential public services to a paralyzed economy.

The experience of the past week is alarming. Though the figures are in dispute, possibly 100 people died in U.S. counterattacks against harassment. Particularly controversial was an assault by U.S. planes and helicopters on a camp that killed up to 70 people.

Meanwhile about 40 Americans have died since May 1, the day on which President Bush proclaimed that the war in Iraq was over.

In response to these aggressive U.S. counterattacks, Adnan Pachachi, a former Iraqi foreign minister who supports a U.S. presence in Iraq, has called for a suspension of U.S. sweeps and other offensive operations until an Iraqi government has been formed. Other Iraqi leaders to whom Washington looked for support have declared that they will not participate in any government until the raids have ended. There are also increasing calls for the troops to leave.

In short, the United States faces the same difficult choice it encountered in Vietnam: whether to give priority to winning hearts and minds through a political process, or to concentrate on eliminating a military enemy. The assumption underlying the military strategy is that the opposition is a finite group that can be isolated and contained. Those who disagree say that U.S. strategies and conduct themselves will determine whether the number of opponents shrinks or increases. Ongoing civilian casualties, it is claimed, ensure that U.S. troops will continue to be targets for sharpshooters, mines and rocket-propelled grenades.

One problem not faced in Vietnam is that U.S. forces in Iraq, if they are seen to be oppressing Muslims, will attract rootless Islamist terrorists from other Arab countries. If the mere presence of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia helped to generate al-Qaeda, the infliction of civilian casualties in Iraq will likely create an even stronger reaction.

In the recent U.S. air strike that killed 70 people, by all accounts many of the dead were not Iraqis but Arabs from other countries, including Syria, Yemen and Saudi Arabia.

Washington took a step toward military priorities when it assigned responsibility for the post-war occupation to the Defense Department, rather than to State. It took another when U.S. Administrator Paul Bremer canceled plans to convene a provisional national assembly, in favor of a U.S.-appointed advisory council.

Luckily for the United States, most of the recent conflict has been confined to the Sunni area north of Baghdad. The Sunnis only account for about 30 percent of the Iraqi population, but were the group who lost most from the war, since Saddam Hussein relied on them to dominate the country's Shiite majority. But since local forces in this area were not seriously engaged in the initial conflict, they are now in a better position to resume unconventional warfare now.

The Kurds to their north are not likely for now to present a major challenge to the U.S. presence. Only 15 percent of the Iraqi population, they suffered much from Saddam and their leaders have announced they will integrate peacefully into a post-war, federal Iraq. But Kurdish collaboration has been purchased at a price. In May, the United States announced that Kurdish forces would be allowed to keep their automatic weapons. Shiite groups in the south have seized on this as a pretext not to give up theirs.

It is more difficult to predict the future for the Shiite majority who live in the south. Most Shiites are still happy to see Saddam gone. But the United States is concerned about the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), a Shia exile group formerly based in Iran and headed by Ayatollah Muhammad Bakr al-Hakim. Al-Hakim has conceded that Iraq's future government must represent all groups, including Kurds and Christians. But he has called for a legal code responsive to Islamic teachings and has demanded that the United States withdraw from Iraq quickly, something the Bush administration clearly does not plan to do.

Meanwhile the SCIRI's military wing, the Badr Corps, has turned to humanitarian work in conjunction with international aid groups. But U.S. administrator Paul Bremer said last Wednesday that those supplying social services included guerrillas sent by Iran across the border to form an armed movement. The prospects of political cooperation between the United States and SCIRI look less promising now than they did earlier.

North and south, there are Iraqis working to implement plans for a new government. The question is whether these alliances can withstand the pressures of a new military campaign.

PNS contributor Peter Dale Scott ( is a former Canadian diplomat and professor of English at UC Berkeley. His most recent book is "Drugs, Oil and War: The United States in Afghanistan, Colombia, and Indochina" (Rowman Littlefield, 2003).

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