Keeping fingers crossed

April 06, 2004

SO WHO'S it going to be - the Sunni Muslims or the Shiite Muslims? Who's going to prove to be the bigger headache for the American occupying forces in Iraq?

"I guess time will tell," Donald H. Rumsfeld, the suddenly reflective secretary of defense, told a small group of reporters in Annapolis yesterday.

Until this past weekend, the Sunnis were the obvious problem. Their cushy life was, according to the conventional wisdom, a thing of the past, and, out of frustration, they were killing Americans in cities such as Fallujah. But then Sunday brought the uprising of the Shiite militia in Baghdad and Najaf, and you had to wonder which was the more serious threat.

Listening to Mr. Rumsfeld, you also had to wonder how nimble the United States will be in dealing with either.

Although he clearly knows better, he seems to want to cling to the notion that those who attack Americans in Iraq are common criminals, foreign terrorists or remnants of the old regime - which is simply not the case with the militia of Muqtada al-Sadr, and would appear to be a debatable point as far as the mob in Fallujah was concerned. Mr. Rumsfeld said that the al-Sadr militia was not being disarmed because it had arisen only in the last few months - under the nose of the U.S. occupying force, in other words - and that disarmament of one militia can't begin until disarmament of all militias begins.

The current American troop level in Iraq - which is up slightly, at 134,000, because of an ongoing rotation - is sufficient, he said. Soldiers who have been seeing action have been fighting for only a few minutes or maybe an hour at a time, he pointed out; the implication is that they can get busier if need be. He spoke yesterday with Gen. John P. Abizaid about the recent "spike" in incidents, and he said the U.S. commander agrees with him on the number of troops required.

"If it got enormously better tonight, he wouldn't need them. If it got enormously worse, he'd need more. But you can't look around a corner," Mr. Rumsfeld said.

That's true; much of what he said made sense. But taken together, his comments add up to a things-probably-aren't-so-bad argument. Yet it looks as if the United States is getting caught flat-footed more and more by events in Iraq. It might be time to stop dismissing the insurgents and take a serious look at the "gathering threat" - not of Saddam Hussein, but of an antipathy toward the United States that appears to be both more virulent and more widespread than Washington can imagine.

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