Brave Face Belies Administration's Panic
This week's abrupt and unscheduled return here by L. Paul Bremer, Washington's proconsul in Baghdad, for top-level White House consultations, as well as the partial leak of a pessimistic Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) report on public attitudes in Iraq, pushed the Bush administration off balance.
The news that at least 15 Italian paramilitary and army troops, as well as 10 others, were killed in a suicide attack on the carabinieri headquarters in the hitherto relatively peaceful southern city of Nasariyeh on Wednesday seemed only to underline the sense here that resistance to the US-led occupation in Iraq is both growing and beyond control.
"It is a tough situation," Bremer, who heads the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), told reporters after emerging from the White House on Wednesday morning.
"I have said repeatedly in my discussions, both private and public, for six months that I am completely confident and optimistic about the outcome in Iraq, but we will face some difficult days, like today when we had the attack on the Italian soldiers in the south."
Asked about the CIA report that found growing popular disillusionment with the US occupation, Bremer was unusually uncertain. "I think the situation with the Iraqi public is, frankly, not easy to quantify."
The CIA report, whose existence was disclosed by the Philadelphia Inquirer, concluded that growing numbers of Iraqis believe that the occupation can be defeated and are supporting the insurgents.
The report, written by the CIA's station chief in Baghdad, was formally presented to top officials Monday, but word of its conclusions was also selectively leaked to various reporters, apparently, said the newspaper, to "make sure the assessment reaches Bush."
The Inquirer's source indicated frustration with Iraq hawks, including Vice President Dick Cheney and the Pentagon's civilian leadership, whose optimistic assessments of the situation had crowded out more somber analyses in White House discussions.
According to the newspaper, the report argued that public skepticism of US intentions in Iraq remained very high -- an assessment corroborated by recent Gallup polls in Baghdad -- and that the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC), which was hand-picked by the CPA, has virtually no popular support.
It also warned that friction between occupation authorities and the Shia Muslim community, both in Baghdad and in the southern part of the country, was growing and could lead to open hostilities, a contingency that has been Washington's worst nightmare since last March's invasion.
Shiites account for at least 60 percent of Iraq's total population, more than twice as much as the Sunnis in central Iraq, the area that US officials have described as the main focus of Ba'ath Party "terrorists" who presumably remain loyal to ousted President Saddam Hussein.
The CIA report was obviously written before Wednesday's suicide attack on the carabinieri in predominantly Shiite Nasariyeh as well as an incident Sunday in which a US soldier shot and killed the US-appointed mayor of the overwhelmingly Shiite district of Baghdad, Sadr City, after a scuffle whose circumstances are being investigated by occupation authorities.
Administration officials have publicly described Bremer's two-day dash to Washington as routine, but circumstances belied that explanation.
In coming here, Bremer was forced to cancel a long-planned meeting in Baghdad with visiting Polish Prime Minister Leszek Miller. Despite public opposition, Miller's government has supplied more troops to the occupation than any other country, except the United States and Britain, and last week lost an officer to hostile fire in Iraq.
"Standing up Miller of all people is not conducive to getting other countries to send troops," noted one Congressional aide.
Bremer met both Tuesday and Wednesday morning with top national-security officials, including Bush and Cheney. The main points on the agenda included both how to respond to the increased frequency and lethality of the attacks and whether and how to accelerate a political transition to an Iraqi government.
On the military front, the average daily number of attacks on occupation forces now exceeds 30 -- more than twice as many as three months ago -- with more than 40 US soldiers killed in just the past two weeks, according to the US commander in the field, Gen. Ricardo Sanchez.
In a lengthy meeting with reporters in Baghdad on Tuesday, Sanchez insisted the attacks were mainly the work of Ba'ath loyalists and foreign Islamist fighters but also admitted that Washington still lacks good intelligence on both groups.
Sanchez also suggested for the first time that resistance forces are now operating at least at the regional level and possibly with some national coordination with respect to tactics and targets. Until now, the occupation has depicted the opposition as small groups acting only at the local level.
It appears that the US military has decided to respond to the increased level of resistance with much more aggressive, "shock-and-awe" tactics, a decision that was previewed last weekend with the unprecedented bombing by US warplanes of suspected guerrilla arms caches and hideouts near Tikrit.
The military announced that some two dozen explosions heard in Baghdad on Wednesday night were US forces carrying out attacks on a suspected guerrilla site.
The decision to prosecute a more aggressive counterinsurgency campaign carries serious risks, a point stressed in the CIA report.
As Milt Bearden, who oversaw US support for the Afghan resistance in the 1980s, wrote in the New York Times this weekend: "For every mujahadeen killed or hauled off by Soviet troops in Afghanistan, a revenge group of perhaps half a dozen members of his family took up arms. Sadly, this same rule probably applies in Iraq."
The political front looks equally risky. While the administration wants to accelerate the process to put an "Iraqi face" on the government, Bremer appears to have lost confidence in the 24 members of the IGC, including Pentagon favorite Ahmed Chalabi.
The IGC, which has until Dec. 15 to submit to the United Nations Security Council a plan to draft a new constitution, has so far failed to tackle the issue seriously, and the administration is worried that any delay will derail its own timetable, including plans to have an elected government in place before the November, 2004 US presidential elections.
As a result, the White House is considering abandoning its previous plans and moving instead to create a provisional government similar to the one installed by coalition forces in Afghanistan after the Taliban's ouster, which could oversee the drafting of a constitution. One problem is that it has no obvious candidate to head such a government, as it did in Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan.
Or the administration could go along with the position of the Shia authorities in Najaf, who have called for elections to a constitutional convention. But that too could create new problems or further alienate the Sunni population due to the fact that Shiites would almost certainly dominate such a process.