The civilian problem

April 02, 2003|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - Critical to the Bush administration's effort to convince Iraqi civilians that the Americans have invaded their country as liberators, not conquerors or occupiers, is its determination to keep civilian casualties to a minimum.

This worthy undertaking, however, appears to be complicating the military effort without avoiding allegations, including self-serving charges by the Saddam Hussein regime, that nonmilitary targets are being hit at a high cost in civilian lives.

On ABC News' This Week Sunday, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld referred to the inhibitions on military strategy imposed by this consideration. In the 1991 Persian Gulf war, he said, "there was a lot of collateral damage [Pentagonese for killing and wounding civilians] from the long air war. Our preference is, as a country, to have as little collateral damage as possible."

He went on: "It is important ... that the people of Iraq be liberated ... that we do it in a way that we feel comfortable with - as a country." The comment implied more a humanitarian than a tactical motivation in a policy that is more easily stated than achieved.

In southern Iraq, the notion that the civilian population would be a docile or irrelevant factor in the successful execution of the invasion has been seriously compromised by events on the ground. Iraqi paramilitary attacks on coalition supply lines have put a different face on parts of that population.

The introduction of enemy suicide attacks has understandably made U.S. forces more wary, with one resultant episode undercutting the objective of limiting civilian casualties. A van carrying Iraqi women and children that failed to heed warning shots was fired upon, and seven were killed. Such incidents produce psychological as well as human fodder for undermining U.S. credibility in world opinion.

During and after the Vietnam War, even with no similar focus on avoiding civilian casualties, the American political leadership was bitterly criticized in hawkish quarters for fighting with one hand tied behind its back. In that instance, the charge was that full U.S. might was never thrown against the enemy in North Vietnam.

Our political leaders, particularly Democratic President Lyndon Johnson, were accused of holding back out of concern about the growing street protests and violence at home. Then, keeping a lid on civilian casualties was not nearly as central to administration policy as it is today.

This time, minimizing such casualties, along with massive humanitarian aid to the surviving civilian population, is integral to part of President Bush's justification of the invasion itself - liberating the Iraqi people and establishing a democratic regime in Baghdad.

In the Arab world, and in most of Europe, if not here at home, that justification requires much harder selling than did the reason for American military action against Iraq 12 years ago. James A. Baker III, the American secretary of state then who helped construct a much broader coalition for the use of force, pointed out Sunday that the senior President George Bush acted to reverse Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, whereas his son has started a pre-emptive "war of choice."

As the invasion moves inexorably toward Baghdad, with its prospect of lethal street fighting, the American determination to limit civilian casualties is likely to be a much more formidable challenge, as will convincing nonmilitary Iraqis and the world at large that U.S. forces are in the country primarily as liberators.

Yet Mr. Bush, having declared that to be the true goal of U.S. firepower and the U.S. presence in Iraq, can hardly back off that objective - or at least off the rhetoric that casts the American and British invaders as fighters for the freedom of the Iraqi people. But reducing collateral damage at the same time will not be easy against an enemy often hidden among the populace.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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