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In Darkness, Waiting for Dawn

The incoming sovereign government will need skill and luck to cure Iraq's ills, which confounded the occupation.

June 27, 2004|Alissa J. Rubin and Doyle McManus | Times Staff Writers

Baghdad — The deep "booms" come many mornings now. The explosions, often from artillery shells wired together in the trunk or backseat of a car, shear through the blazing summer heat. If you're close, you're dead. A few steps removed and you're maimed. To those who are spared, the odor of burnt flesh both sickens and reminds that luck has been a partner today.

There is a backbeat, too, to these attacks -- a barrage of bullets pumped into a car or perhaps a single shot to the back of the head. Iraq's assassination victims by now number as many as 1,000, although there is no official count. Some were academics, doctors and lawyers; others were Iraqis suspected of working with the U.S.-led occupation authority; still others were suspected former Baathists and followers of Saddam Hussein.

There are kidnappings, too. They seem mild by comparison because most captors merely seek a ransom, and the victim survives. But their spread has driven many of the country's professionals out of the country.

The United States and its allies have ruled Iraq for more than a year and can cite a list of successes. The most important is that Iraq is free of Hussein's tyrannical grip. People can say what they want, mostly, and are debating in a democratic way for the first time in memory.

But the occupation government has also failed notably in its attempts to restore security -- and as the restoration of sovereignty approaches, that reality is what dominates life for most Iraqis.

Beginning Wednesday, Iraqis selected by the United Nations and the United States will get a chance to repair their broken country. If they are skilled and lucky, and if they can persuade thousands of their countrymen to fight in the new security forces, they may achieve their goal: a country stable enough to hold free elections early next year. If skill and luck run out, the insurgency could intensify, and the simmering strife among Iraq's three major groups -- Sunni Muslim Arabs, Shiite Muslim Arabs and Kurds -- could spiral into civil war.

The recent coordinated attacks against American troops and Iraqi police dominated headlines -- and obscured the signs of what awaits if security is not restored. On Saturday, insurgents believed to be Sunnis besieged a Shiite political party's headquarters in Baqubah, about 30 miles north of Baghdad, killing three workers. Last week, six Shiite truck drivers were killed in the Sunni town of Fallouja after taking shelter in a police station. Last weekend, Kurds captured a handful of Sunni Arabs near Kirkuk after Arab attacks on Kurds. In recent days, Shiite factions faced off in southern Iraq for control of mosques and cities.

Iraqis and their American partners still face daunting hurdles in restoring public safety. Many of the Iraqis who once welcomed Americans as liberators now disdain them as occupiers. Yet the 163,000 U.S. and allied troops now in the country have no timetable for leaving. Quite the contrary: Over the coming year, their numbers are likely to grow.

For Americans, the price of occupation has already been far higher than the White House imagined -- in dollars, loss of life and erosion of U.S. credibility in the world. Before the invasion, the Bush administration predicted the new Iraq would be a self-governing, self-financing country that, with a little help, would quickly become a stable, prosperous and reliable ally. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz said it was "hard to conceive that it would take more forces to provide stability in post-Saddam Iraq than it would take to conduct the war itself." Under the Pentagon's initial timetable, most U.S. troops were supposed to be home by now.

But the administration's expectations turned out to be based on bad intelligence and wishful thinking. Wolfowitz and his boss, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, deliberately sent the minimum number of troops necessary to Iraq, with little provision for unpleasant surprises. Bush and his aides, who disdained "nation-building," did little to plan for what has become their principal foreign policy problem.

As a result, the administration was unprepared when the reality of Iraq fell short of its ideal. After the invasion, Baghdad's police force and civil service disappeared overnight. Looters destroyed the government offices to which U.S. advisors had been told to report. The economy, the oil industry and public utilities were not self-starting. An underground insurgency launched by what occupation authorities called "former regime loyalists" grew, and Shiite radicals and Sunni nationalists began their own military efforts, the latter with assistance from foreign fighters.

U.S. fighting units designed and equipped for war against Hussein's conventional army attempted to retool to battle guerrillas. The results, predictably, were mixed. American soldiers with no experience in the Arab world and no facility with its language found themselves kicking in the doors of terrified villagers.

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