Teetering on the Brink

One year after President George W. Bush declared the end of major combat in Iraq, the United States appears to be teetering on the brink of strategic defeat in its Mesopotamian adventure.

Even as Bush Friday reiterated his ambition of bringing "freedom and democracy" to Iraq and the Middle East, a series of recent policy reversals -- capped by Friday's announcement that a former Baathist general will take charge of an all-Iraqi security force in Fallujah -- suggests that an increasingly desperate Washington will settle for far less.

Indeed, over the past two weeks, the administration appears to have almost entirely jettisoned the neoconservative vision of an ardently pro-U.S. Iraq led by Iraqi National Congress (INC) chief Ahmed Chalabi, opened wide to U.S. and western capital, and eager to serve as a convenient base for destabilizing Syria, Iran, and even Saudi Arabia if it gets out of line.

The defeat of the neo-conservatives, whose influence has been exercised primarily through the offices of Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, has been made abundantly clear by the mandate the administration has given UN special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi to essentially handpick the leadership of the new Iraqi government that will gain ''limited sovereignty," as one State Department official put it this week, after June 30.

The fact that the UN has been given such an important role severely undercuts the maximalist objectives of the neo-cons and other right-wing unilateralists whose main aim in going to war in Iraq was to demonstrate that Washington did not need the world body to ''legitimate'' its role as the ultimate guarantor of global security.

Brahimi's apparent decision to exclude Chalabi, for whom he is said to have the greatest contempt, drew strong protests from the INC leader's neocon supporters in the Pentagon and outside the administration who were then further infuriated by Brahimi's statements last week to the current Israeli policies, fervently backed by the neocons, were ''poison'' for the entire region. Bush's refusal to back away from the Algerian diplomat confirmed that the balance of power within the administration, at least on Iraq, has shifted decisively toward the realists.

Finally, the decision not only to forgo a major attack on insurgents in Fallujah, but to also withdraw Marines to positions outside the city and recognize a new, Baathist-led force to guarantee security there, defied the hawks' increasingly shrill insistence that a failure to crush the uprising and capture or kill those responsible for the deaths of four U.S. private-security contractors in early April would mark a strategic defeat for the occupation.

The deal, which clearly caught the Pentagon civilians off-guard, appeared to have been negotiated by commanders on the ground and approved by the National Security Council staff in the White House -- one more indication that neocons have fallen from grace.

But it also indicated a larger policy already announced by Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) chief Paul Bremer a week ago -- that, in the words of Iraq specialist Juan Cole at the University of Michigan, ''the United States has embarked on a policy of re-Baathification, rehabilitating thousands of ex-Baathists and putting them to work." This policy reversal, too, has been strongly opposed by Chalabi, who had been in charge of the de-Baathification program, and his allies in Washington.

But, while the administration no longer appears to be heeding the neo-cons on Iraq policy, the big question is whether these policy reversals will save the U.S. occupation and Washington's minimum goals of putting in place (with Brahimi's help) a broadly representative government that can both ensure stability and accede to the indefinite presence of several discreetly situated U.S. military bases.

On this, opinions in Washington are deeply divided, but a growing number of analysts believe that policy changes may be a case of too little, too late.

The foreign policy establishment was shocked by an interview in the Wall Street Journal by ret. Gen. William E. Odom calling for a swift withdrawal. Odom, who among other posts served as Ronald Reagan's director of the National Security Agency (NSA), said, ''We have failed,'' adding that even if an Iraqi election is held next January as scheduled, ''Anybody that's pro-American cannot gain legitimacy."

Odom, who is based at the conservative Hudson Institute and has never been inclined to traditional isolationism, warned that the very presence of U.S. troops -- let alone a major military crackdown against Iraqi insurgents -- was radicalizing both Iraqis and other Arabs, risking the destabilization of the entire region. He said, ''The issue is how high a price we're going to pay. ... Less, by getting out sooner, or more, by getting out later?"

Odom's analysis is bolstered by the results of a recent Gallup/CNN/USA Today survey, which found that 57 percent of Iraqis wants the U.S. occupation forces to leave the country ''immediately," a time frame defined as ''in the next few months." When the generally pro-U.S. Kurdish sample (representing about 13 percent of the population) was excluded, the portion of Iraqis favoring an immediate withdrawal rose to two-thirds.

The detailed survey largely confirmed reports that the vast majority of Iraqis have become very disillusioned with the U.S. and the occupation forces over the last 13 months. While pleased that Saddam Hussein is no longer in power, four out of five non-Kurdish Iraqis said they now regard the coalition forces as ''occupiers'' rather than ''liberators."

More importantly, the survey was conducted before the sieges of Fallujah and Najaf which, according to most published reports, further alienated Iraqis from the occupation. ''If these polls results are to be believed, we've already lost the war for hearts and minds," notes one congressional aide whose boss initially supported the war.

''I don't believe that the American public generally understand what happened in the first half of April which is that the U.S. lost control of Iraq to a set of popular uprisings and was forced to reconquer the country," says Cole.

But the cost in both Iraqi and U.S. lives has been unexpectedly high. More than 130 U.S. soldiers were killed in April, more than were killed in the first six weeks of the invasion; indeed, more than any one-month military death toll since just before the last U.S. combat troops withdrew from Vietnam in 1973.

The fighting has forced the administration to put off scheduled withdrawals and consider sending in more troops. The political effect here has been a sharp drop in public confidence in Bush's Iraq policy, according to a New York Times/CBS poll which also found that a record 58 percent of the U.S. public now believe that the invasion has not been worth the cost in lives and resources.

Cole said that the decision to pull back from Fallujah, as well as other recent major policy reversals ''may have taken us back from the brink, but we could be back there at any time."

Even as the Marines were pulling back from Fallujah, the Pentagon was expediting the shipment of more heavy tanks and armoured vehicles to Iraq -- precisely the kind of weapons that counter-insurgency specialists say will make it more difficult for occupation troops to win ''hearts and minds."

Moreover, there is every indication that U.S. military is already over-stretched and running low on resources. A telling sign: The Army has requested ski areas in the Sierra Nevada mountains that were using five howitzers to prevent avalanches to return them immediately for use in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Jim Lobe writes for the Inter Press Service, TomPaine.com, and foreign Policy in Focus.


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