What Mr. Bush didn't tell you in Iraq speech

October 11, 2005|By TRUDY RUBIN

PHILADELPHIA -- President Bush gave an amazing speech on terrorism and Iraq last Thursday in which he left out almost everything you need to know.

The speech was aimed at reversing the slide in public support for the Iraq war. The theme? Iraq is "the central front in our war on terror."

If we retreat, Islamic militants will take over Iraq and use it as a "haven for terror" from which they will destabilize the region and the world, Mr. Bush said. So we must "never back down" until we achieve "complete victory" - a term whose definition wasn't provided.

The president didn't tell you that Iraq has become an al-Qaida haven because of mistakes made by the Bush team. He tried, instead, to debunk such charges by arguing that Islamists hated us before the Iraq war started. True, but irrelevant.

The Iraq war didn't trigger al-Qaida's crimes, but it strengthened the hand of Islamic radicals in the region.

Prior to the Iraq war, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was an obscure jihadi holed up in the Kurdish mountains along with a small band of Islamists. U.S. forces knew his location and could have destroyed him. Instead, our mistakes turned him into the most dangerous Islamist radical in the region.

The president didn't tell you that Iraq descended into its current violence because the Bush team invaded with no plan for the postwar era. It sent too few troops to stabilize the country. Iraqi insurgents quickly perceived our weakness, and the country became a magnet for radicals from elsewhere.

So we made Mr. al-Zarqawi into what he is today and provided him with a base. What do we do now? The president didn't tell you how we can dry up this terrorist haven we've facilitated in Iraq.

Mr. Bush claimed to have "a comprehensive, specific military plan" that involves training Iraqi military forces so we can draw down U.S. troops. That assumes that the Iraqis are capable of assuming leadership.

The president didn't tell you that only one battalion out of about 80 battalions of the Iraqi army - fewer than 1,000 men - is fully capable of planning and operating on its own. About 30 battalions could take the lead if U.S. forces support them.

But the issue is much bigger than training Iraqi forces. What matters is motivation: whether Iraqis know for what and against whom they are fighting. In an Iraq fractured into religious and ethnic factions, Iraqi forces also have conflicting loyalties. That makes it hard for an Iraqi military to jell.

The president didn't tell you that most senior U.S. military officers believe the Iraqi insurgency can't be defeated by military means. The key is political. Unless Iraq's factions can find common ground, the low-level civil war will continue and the Iraqi military won't be able to assert control.

Mr. Bush did speak of the need to support Iraqi democracy, as Iraq moves toward a vote on a constitution this weekend and elections in December. But he didn't tell you that the draft constitution is splitting the country further, as minority Sunnis fear it shuts them out of power and a share of Iraq's oil.

The most important thing the president neglected to tell you is that we face two unhappy choices in Iraq.

Pull out from Iraq now, and the current low-grade civil war in Iraq will worsen. I've seen full-scale civil wars up close - in Lebanon and Bosnia - and Iraq has far to go to equal their horrors. None of the factions can control the whole country; Iraq would likely split into three pieces. The Shiites in the south would fall further under Iran's sway; "Sunnistan" in the center would become more of a magnet for jihadis.

Stay on, and we might only be postponing the above. Without some political accord among Iraq's Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds, the insurgency won't be tamed in the foreseeable future, or the Islamists stopped.

It might be time for sterner U.S. warnings to all Iraqi factions that we can't stay unless they agree on a formula that gives each a fair stake in their country. Should the constitution fail, the December election provides one last chance for political compromise among Iraqis. If December doesn't bring better political news, all options will have to be reconsidered.

The president most certainly did not tell you that.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

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