Springfield State Journal Register

April 16, 2004

Experts see a moment of truth
Now is the time to fix policies or risk failure


By OTTO KREISHER
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - Following the deadliest two weeks of U.S. operations in Iraq, military and foreign policy experts are warning that a long list of mistakes has undermined the effort to stabilize and rebuild Iraq and could set the stage for a disastrous failure.

Anthony Cordsman, a national security analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that while the U.S.-led forces "still do not face a major insurgency" in Iraq, "the risks are far higher than the president portrayed" in his news conference on Tuesday.

"The United States is facing a moment of truth in Iraq that will determine the U.S. future in Iraq and its standing in the Middle East," said Vitzhak Hakash, chairman of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at Brandies University

Michael O'Hanlon, a Brookings Institution national security analyst, said that although he has long been an optimist about Iraq, "I'm less optimistic now. ... It's definitely a dark period."

And Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, the senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, said Thursday that he views the situation in Iraq "with a deep and abiding sense of frustration. Time is running out for us to get it right."

The comments came near the end of two weeks of bitter fighting that has killed more than 90 U.S. service personnel and wounded more than 600. That is a higher toll than the worst two weeks during the actual war against Saddam Hussein's forces last year.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, while acknowledging that "the coalition forces have had a tough period of days in Iraq," insisted that "it's noble work, and in the end it will be successful."

Biden and the analysts said U.S. officials made mistakes in not having enough troops to handle the post-conflict period, in failing to properly screen and prepare Iraqi security forces, in failing to develop ties to the different segments of the Iraqi population and in moving much too slowly to rebuild the Iraqi infrastructure and economy.

Although Rumsfeld has insisted repeatedly that the forces invading Iraq last year were adequate, O'Hanlon said looking at "the missions not being done last summer," - including ammunition dumps and borders left unguarded - "you have to say we didn't have enough troops."

"We were taken to war, essentially alone ... with too few troops," Biden said.

Ken Pollack, a Middle East expert at Brookings, said the past two weeks have shown that the new Iraqi security force "is absolutely hollow."

Most of the police and army units abandoned their posts or refused to join in the fights against armed Sunni extremists and the militia formed by militant Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

Pollack said he had long argued the security forces "were not properly vetted, not properly trained, not properly equipped. They should not have been put out on the street."

The analysts also warned that the Coalition Provisional Authority has made no progress in preparing Iraq for the transfer of sovereignty on June 30 by developing leaders acceptable to most Iraqis or by easing the hostility among religious and ethnic groups in the country.

"We still don't have a clear path forward" on the political side, said Bathseba Crocker, co-chair of Brooking's post-conflict project. "If, on June 30, we turn over sovereignty to a government that lacks legitimacy, there could be real trouble."

"Neither we nor the exiles we brought with us have any legitimacy," Cordsman said, referring, for example, to Ahmad Chalabi, who lived many years abroad but is serving on the Governing Council.

The experts agreed that the reconstruction efforts have failed to improve conditions or provide jobs as fast as the Iraqis expected, which has eroded the initial support for the coalition.

Pollack said the slow reconstruction has caused many Iraqis to believe "the United States can't or won't do what is necessary to actually rebuild Iraq," which is generating recruits for Sadr.

Hakash contrasted the initial welcome for the U.S. troops with the violent opposition to a British invasion of Iraq in 1915.

But a year later, he said, "the (Iragi) tolerance of the Americans has all but evaporated."

Although most Shiites have not joined the al-Sadr uprising, Hakash said, "clearly they are growing increasingly restive. ... If left unchecked, the uprising could lead to a full-fledged revolt."

Rumsfeld, however, said Army Gen. John Abizaid, had told him Thursday that the fighting in the Sunni area "is being contained" and that the Shiite uprising "is largely stabilized."

"The coalition has had good cooperation from the moderate Shia leadership, who like the vast majority of the Iraqi people want to see freedom and the rule of law take root," he said.

Several of the experts warned that President Bush must be more candid about the likely cost of the conflict and reconstruction.

"We need more candor with the American people about what this is going to cost in blood and money," Cordsman said.

Biden said Vietnam showed "no foreign policy can be sustained in America, no matter how well conceived, without the informed consent of the American people."

"In my view, we never had the informed consent, because we never informed them of the cost" of the Iraqi war in terms of troop levels and funds.

Biden said he lives near Dover Air Force Base, where planes bring the war dead on their final journey.

"This is not about politics ... this is about the last journey home for so many Americans," the senator said. "We owe them nothing less than acknowledging that we got it wrong and vowing to get it right."