More war

July 11, 2004

IRAQ HAS BEEN a sovereign nation for nearly two weeks now. As of late Friday, 26 American soldiers had died there since the don't-look-now handover. That pushed the total U.S. and allied dead over the 1,000 mark for the war - a war that is still very much in progress.

The number of Iraqis killed, according to various estimates, may be 10 to 12 times that number, but no one knows for sure. The Iraqi Ministry of Health reports that 400 have died since the new government took power June 28. Last week, consequently, the new prime minister of Iraq - one-time CIA "asset" Iyad Allawi - signed a bill that allows him to impose martial law. That's not an auspicious beginning for democracy, but it's hard to see how it differs much from conditions as they existed under the U.S. occupation.

American military leaders have acknowledged, finally, that they are facing not a few hundred or even a few thousand insurgents in Iraq but as many as 20,000, which is a measure of how difficult the future will be. Even that number is arbitrary; the ranks of the insurgent forces more probably swell and contract as passions - or opportunities - dictate. The problem is that it is difficult to keep the lid on both passion and opportunity at the same time. Fallujah is a good example of that.

In April, the Marines moved in on Fallujah, fighting block by block and killing hundreds of people. When the political cost became too high, they pulled back, and turned the city over to the so-called Fallujah Brigade. That may well have been a key factor in preventing a more general uprising, but it is now clear that an unmolested Fallujah has become a base for car bombers and others bent on mayhem. U.S. warplanes have started targeting houses there again, which may be effective in killing off the leadership of the insurgency - to the extent that there is a leadership - but which risks once more provoking the wider population into taking up arms. There is no satisfactory solution to this dilemma.

In the long run, turning nominal power over to an Iraqi caretaker Cabinet may prove to have been the first step on the road to stability there. But very little changes in the here and now. Americans are still stuck in Iraq, getting shot at and shooting back.

The situation there demands close attention; the U.S. military must carefully balance the need for security against the danger of provoking a greater backlash. The temptation for the White House, as the election nears, will surely be to draw U.S. forces back to the safety of their bases, to minimize American casualties. Unfortunately, that would run the risk of replicating Fallujah on a national scale, and lay the groundwork for an inevitable eruption. Pretending that all is well could be the most fatal mistake of all.

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