After year in Iraq, no end in sight

Conflict: Despite predictions of quick victory and rebuilding, tens of thousands of U.S. troops are likely to remain in the country for years.

Iraq Conflict : Soldiers And Security

March 18, 2004|By Mark Matthews and Tom Bowman | Mark Matthews and Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Victory would be swift, the Bush administration predicted, though not without cost.

Saddam Hussein might set oil wells ablaze, fire chemical-tipped artillery, hurl Scuds at Israel and trigger an exodus of refugees.

But Iraq would quickly heal, supported by its underground wealth. Its grateful, liberated population would be a model of sanity in a deranged region, leading a trend toward democracy and away from extremism and conflict.

In fact, Hussein's regime scattered even faster than expected, its weapons stockpile proved to be illusory, and Iraqis mostly stayed put. Yet, a year after President Bush launched Operation Iraqi Freedom, victory remains elusive. And American troops - now numbering 110,000 - are likely to be in Iraq for at least three more years and possibly well beyond that.

The Army's top officer, Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker, told Congress that the Army is planning for a steady troop level of 100,000 through yearlong rotations that extend into 2007.

Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was asked recently how long the United States will have a sizable troop presence in Iraq.

"There is not a range in my own mind," he replied. "Beyond the next couple of rotations, we're going to have to let events dictate the forces we have."

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, the senior Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, said last week, "I don't know of any expert I've spoken to who thinks that within five years we'll be down to less than 75,000 people."

Seth G. Jones, a Rand Corp. specialist who has studied nation-building efforts, says that if the United States wants to succeed in rebuilding Iraq, it must plan to keep forces there for five to seven years, and maybe more.

By way of comparison, U.S. troops are still in Bosnia eight years after its bloody civil war.

If the duration of the troop commitment in Iraq is uncertain, officials hope that they can at least reduce the size of the U.S. force.

One way to do that would be to increase the number from other nations - now about 25,000 troops, mostly from Britain. U.S. officials are trying to persuade NATO to assume a major role as a way of bringing more troops into Iraq and giving the stabilization effort more of an international cast.

That prospect may have diminished in recent days as a result of the election victory by Spain's Socialist Party, whose leader has vowed to withdraw his country's 1,300 troops from Iraq.

Even if NATO were to become more involved, U.S. troops would still make up the bulk of the force. France and Germany, if they could be persuaded to join in, probably could not send more than 5,000 troops each. And NATO officials point out that bringing order to Afghanistan is their top priority.

Alliance officials also say NATO would be unlikely to take a leading role in Iraq without a request from Iraqis and a fresh United Nations mandate that might dilute U.S. authority.

Another way to cut U.S. troops, one favored by some defense officials, is to hasten the development of Iraq's own military and internal security forces. Iraq now has 200,000 men in uniform as soldiers and police, and the number continues to grow.

Walter B. Slocombe, a former undersecretary of defense who until recently advised the U.S. occupation authorities, said "an effective Iraqi police and other security services should be complete" three years from now.

But few imagine that Iraqi security forces are ready to provide protection from domestic crime and terrorism, let alone threats from outside the nation's porous borders.

Only about half the Iraqi security personnel on the books show up for work, said Kenneth M. Pollack, a former Middle East specialist for the CIA now at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center.

Corruption is growing, he said, and there is a fear that some of the locally recruited members of the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps may feel less of an allegiance to the national government than to their tribe or ethnic group, and thereby could become the nucleus for new militias, essentially private armies.

While avoiding long-term predictions on troop numbers and length of stay, the Pentagon has also declined to present cost estimates. The White House budget director, Joshua Bolten, has said the Bush administration will seek another $50 billion for Iraq and Afghanistan, beyond the $87 billion voted for this year by Congress, but the administration has not talked about long-term costs.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has estimated the price tag for occupying Iraq through 2013 at up to $200 billion. Other nations and international banks have pledged $12 billion to $17 billion to help Iraq, but less than $4 billion is in the form of grants; the rest is to be in the form of loans and credits.

A key reason it is so difficult to predict the future for U.S. troops in Iraq is that the outlook for Iraq's internal stability is so uncertain.

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