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Giving Iraq a Future

November 30, 2003

Iraqis attack U.S. troops dozens of times each day with roadside bombs, sniper fire and rocket-propelled grenades that bring down helicopters. Seven months after Saddam Hussein's army collapsed, the war continues; instead of the Iraqi army, guerrillas attack the invaders. The Pentagon's abysmal postwar planning haunts the occupation. When the United States has taken needed actions -- like seeking international help and moving to return the country to Iraqi control -- it has done so too late to achieve the best effect. Windows of opportunity keep slamming shut.

The setbacks do not constitute a compelling case for withdrawal, as President Bush himself emphasized on his whirlwind, top-security visit to the Baghdad airport Thursday. He vowed there would be no retreat "before a band of thugs and assassins." Leaving Iraq now would damage the United States internationally and cause chaos in Iraq, where one tyrant might be replaced by another, or it could create a failed state that became a terrorists' haven. But the rising toll of dead and wounded -- U.S., British, Italian, international peacekeeper and Iraqi -- demands urgency and clarity in explaining to Iraqis and Americans what the U.S. realistically plans to do in Iraq and how, and how soon its occupation will end. The complex, troubling problems of Iraq demand more than presidential determination.

A top U.S. general said the everyday attacks were "militarily insignificant." Yet they are psychologically powerful, boosting insurgents' morale and eroding U.S. support. Even in Mosul, a northern city considered friendly to Americans, two U.S. soldiers were shot to death last weekend. Mohammed Hassan, an Iraqi engineer in Mosul, complained in August that Americans had failed to install "new water pipelines, fix the power station and collect the garbage." Such complaints continue. One U.S. colonel said Iraqis thought that after the war "George Bush would come in and build a Wal-Mart, a Sears Roebuck and a nuclear power station in three weeks."

Such expectations were doomed, even with the tens of billions of dollars that U.S. taxpayers will spend to rebuild Iraq. It will be up to L. Paul Bremer III, the U.S. administrator, to persuade Iraq that when the U.S. leaves, the country won't look like affluent Japan but more like struggling Egypt. The U.S. did not rebuild Japan and Germany after World War II; it provided the Japanese and Germans with the opportunity to do it themselves. The U.S. military presence in Iraq probably will last for years. Current plans envision a U.S. troop reduction from 130,000 to about 105,000 next spring. The timetable to hand over political control to the Iraqis has been speeded up, setting July 1 as the date by which the country should elect a transitional national assembly that will choose an executive branch and cabinet ministers. A good goal. But the new politicians will need to be more active and competent than the U.S.-installed Iraqi Governing Council, set up as an Iraqi face on the occupation and advisor to the Coalition Provisional Authority.

Postwar planning was dreadful. Bush gave responsibility for Iraq's reconstruction to the Pentagon, where civilian officials foolishly fell for the fantasies of longtime Iraqi exiles that U.S. and allied troops would be greeted with "sweets and flowers" as liberators. The exiles fed the myth of Hussein as an urgent danger to the U.S.

The invasion has given fanatic Muslims a new cause: ousting Western invaders from an Arab nation. It has prompted them to put aside their hatred of secular Hussein acolytes and join forces in battle. In recent months, the United Nations has withdrawn its workers after its top diplomat in Iraq and dozens of others were murdered. The headquarters of the Red Cross was bombed. Guerrillas killed Iraqis working with Americans, either in government or on police forces; they killed 18 Italian military police officers -- just the kind of security forces the country needs. International aid agencies withdrew their staffs because of poor security. The U.S. casualties have risen to more than 400 killed and 2,400 wounded since the war's start.

The suicide bombers and snipers also obscure progress. Much of Iraq is peaceful; schools and hospitals are open; supplies of oil, water and electricity are increasing. But cruelly plundered and beggared by Hussein, Iraq has a long haul to Western modernity, even with its ample oil. That's a truth the administration should stop obscuring. The U.S. and allies are trying to train a civil defense corps, border guards, police and an army. But the numbers jump so fast that they either are phony or the recruits are insufficiently trained. U.S. officials reported 60,000 Iraqi security personnel trained by Oct. 1, then 100,000 a month later. Midway through November, the number was 131,000.

Having Iraqi officials and police officers running their own country should lessen the targeting of allied troops. Natives who can speak the language, recognize foreigners and read scrawled warnings of explosives will have an advantage over occupation forces.

Finally, the U.S. must abandon its Pollyanna policies and politics -- at home and in Iraq -- about this desert state. Bush's grandiose vision of Iraq as a model democracy transforming the Arab world and the Mideast may one day come to pass. But for now, the U.S. should leave it up to the Iraqis to decide how best to include the majority Shiites and minority Sunnis in their new government and also how to make room for the Kurds. The U.S. should define its political objectives narrowly and be happy when it turns over power if Iraq is on the road to democracy and moving toward a government of laws, not dictators. That would be a quantum improvement over Hussein's rule and a framework for a freer and flourishing Iraq.

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