November's lesson of death and chaos in Iraq

November 16, 2003|By G. Jefferson Price III | G. Jefferson Price III,PERSPECTIVE EDITOR

Historians looking back upon the American experience in Iraq may well consider the events of the first two weeks of November to have been critical in determining the success or failure of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

In that time, scores of Americans and their allies have been killed by Iraqi insurgents - more than 50 by Friday, including the heavy toll from an attack against an Italian police barracks far south of the so-called Sunni Triangle, 16 Americans killed when a transport helicopter was shot down Nov. 2, and six killed when another chopper was knocked down five days later.

Public polling and intelligence surveys in Iraq have discovered that the average Iraqi may be pleased that Saddam Hussein is gone but clearly is not pleased that America is running Iraq.

Analysis of a Gallup Poll of Iraqis finds that fewer than 10 percent of them believe that America invaded to help Iraqis, and even fewer believe that the U.S. objective was to establish a true democracy in their land.

Meanwhile, the Philadelphia Inquirer got hold of a highly classified Central Intelligence Agency report warning that an increasing number of Iraqis believe that the insurgents can defeat the American-led forces, and that the majority Shiite Muslim population might join the Sunnis to achieve that objective. This assessment reportedly was signed by the CIA station chief in Baghdad and L. Paul Bremer III, leader of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in Iraq.

The picture of chaos was advanced by the sudden summoning of Bremer to Washington for urgent consultations. He was sent back to Baghdad with instructions to speed up the transfer of power from the CPA to the Iraqi Governing Council (the U.S.-selected body that Iraqis regarded as dishonest dupes, according to surveys).

Beginning a visit to Asia, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, a chief architect of the go-it-alone invasion approach to Iraq, was pleading for help.

"We'd like assistance. We'd like troop assistance, we'd like humanitarian assistance, we'd like financial assistance," he said.

Read that: Help! We want some other countries to send their troops in here to die. (Thank you, Italy, by the way. Thank you, Great Britain.) We want some other countries to help pay for the monumental cost of this. (But we'll decide who gets the reconstruction contracts.)

Then this: After the death of six Americans in the downing of a Chinook helicopter, the American military command decided to launch a heightened offensive against the insurgents. The Pentagon said this offensive would be code-named "Operation Iron Hammer."

Set aside for a moment word that the first prominent strike of Iron Hammer was a warehouse on the outskirts of Baghdad where Iraqis were warned in advance of the attack and where nothing of significance was destroyed or found.

Consider that Operation Iraqi Freedom, the high-minded sobriquet attached to the invasion and occupation of Iraq, was displaced by Operation Iron Hammer. Then wonder what genius in the Pentagon came up with Iron Hammer.

Surely the idea did not come from the State Department. Iron Hammer sounds too much like Iron Fist, the description that successive Israeli leaders have used over the last 20 years to describe how they will deal with Palestinian and Lebanese enemies, the latter of whom drove Israel out of South Lebanon.

In Baghdad, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez actually used the word "war"' to describe what is going on in Iraq. The Bush administration does not like that word because war involves "major combat," which the president proclaimed was over six months and more than 260 American lives ago.

"We are not walking away, we are not faltering, we are going to win this battle, and this war," said Sanchez.

The definition of the battle and the war may change again before either is won in the way that Sanchez has in mind. For the greatest fear in Washington and elsewhere - especially among America's friends - is not the war; it's the "walking away."

When George Bush decided to invade and occupy Iraq with only Great Britain as a major ally, he went against the earlier best judgments of most people with any experience in the region, including his own father in his own time of war against Iraq.

The grand vision of a pacified, democratized Iraq, with vast oil reserves enabling it to pay its own way and shine the light for the rest of the region, must have seemed quickly achievable. Clearly, it did to Rumsfeld, Vice President Dick Cheney and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz - the architects of this adventure.

But they were wrong. And every day of every week, more Americans are being maimed and killed for the sake of their wrongness.

Lately, the fear has shifted from whether America would stay too long in Iraq to whether America would leave too soon, especially with the White House eye on next November.

Even the most committed opponents of the invasion recognize that leaving too soon would add another wrong to the first wrong. Rumsfeld was right to ask for help from abroad. Every member of this administration should ask for help, from every quarter, to help stabilize Iraq, even if it means Washington doesn't have full control.

And come next November, Americans should remember this November - and who took us on this ill-fated, deadly adventure.

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