30 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- A year ago, the mood in Washington was congratulatory.
On 1 May 2003, U.S. President George W. Bush flew aboard a fighter jet to land on the deck of the first U.S. aircraft carrier to return home from the Iraq war.
The president stood beneath a banner reading "Mission Accomplished" and announced. "Major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed."
For most Americans, that signaled the end of what had been considered the riskiest part of toppling Saddam Hussein -- crushing his army. Up to the moment Bush spoke, U.S. forces had lost 109 soldiers in combat, and another 29 in accidents, in what was one of the most overwhelming U.S. military victories ever.
But one year later -- as U.S. forces combat multiple insurgencies -- the notion that major combat has ended in Iraq is coming into question.
April saw more than 120 U.S. soldiers killed in action -- the bloodiest period for U.S. forces since the three weeks of combat in March and April of 2003.
About 42 percent of Iraqis say they believe their country is better off since the invasion was launched, while 46 percent say the war has done "more harm than good."
The number of U.S. soldiers killed in fighting since Bush announced the end of major combat now stands at 426. That is almost four times the number killed in combat during the period of the official war. An additional 172 U.S. soldiers have been killed in accidents and hundreds more wounded over the past 12 months.
The fiercest recent fighting has been in the central town of Al-Fallujah in Iraq's Sunni Triangle.
U.S. forces also have clashed with militants loyal to radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr who control the Shi'a holy city of Al-Najaf. Washington has vowed to arrest al-Sadr for the murder of a pro-Western cleric last year but troops could have to overcome fierce new resistance to do so.
Washington blames the violence on diehard Saddam loyalists, foreign terrorists entering Iraq to combat the United States, and to the personal ambitions of radical leaders like al-Sadr.
President Bush said this week that the violence is to be expected as the country moves closer to sovereignty.
"The closer we come to passing sovereignty the more likely it is that foreign fighters, disgruntled Ba'athists, or friends of the Shi'a cleric [Muqtada al-Sadr] will try to stop progress," Bush said. "That's what's happening."
Still, the mounting casualties are sparking sharp political debate in the United States. The debate focuses on why the Bush administration has been unable to capitalize on its military occupation of Iraq to ensure the country's orderly transition into a democratic state.
Much of the criticism of the Bush administration's record comes from the Democratic Party, whose presumptive candidate John Kerry will compete for the presidency in November. Kerry has faulted Bush for invading Iraq without adequate international support or ample planning.
But criticism is also coming from staunch conservatives who back Bush's declared goal of transforming Iraq into a model democracy for the Mideast.
A leading conservative -- William Kristol, the editor of "The Weekly Standard" political magazine -- recently faulted the administration for inadequate planning for the occupation period. "The present crisis was hardly unforeseen and [Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld did not ensure that the military was prepared to deal with it," Kristol wrote. "[Rumsfeld] failed to put in place in Iraq a force big enough to handle the challenges at hand."
A recent Gallup poll of nearly 3,500 Iraqis throughout the country found that 42 percent said they believe their country is better off since the invasion was launched, while 46 percent said the war has done "more harm than good." One-third of the Iraqis surveyed said attacks on U.S. forces were justifiable. Another 22 percent said such attacks are "sometimes justified, sometimes not."
Tim Garden, a security analyst at the Royal Institute for International Affairs in London, said the coalition had to make tough decisions in Iraq and at times made choices that led to new difficulties. He said one of the most controversial decisions was the one to disband Saddam's army after the war.
"That's a difficult decision and you can argue it both ways," Garden said. "But there is no doubt that if you put an army -- effectively without pay, but with weapons -- back into the community, you are going to sow yourself some problems. So even if it was necessary, and I am sure it was, to thin out the old army quite a lot, it would probably have been better to spend a little money in order to do it in a more orderly fashion and try and keep some of the leadership if you could identify who might have been the nucleus for the security forces that you would need subsequently."
Washington is now forming a New Iraqi Army by hiring vetted former soldiers but the process is time-consuming. The coalition has provided some financial compensation to unemployed former soldiers, who at times have rioted.
At the same time, the coalition has purged members of the former ruling Ba'ath Party from public positions, but then in recent weeks partly eased the program due to the shortage of professionals the "de-Ba'athification" policy created.
Top U.S. administrator in Iraq L. Paul Bremer defended the de-Ba'athification effort as necessary but said last month that thousands of teachers dismissed for holding party cards who did not use their positions to harm Iraqis could return to work or receive pensions.
Some critics of the coalition's record also have faulted it for failing to enlist the support of preeminent Shi'a Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani for the U.S. effort to transform Iraq.
An article in the "The Wall Street Journal" recently observed that "none of the religious figures [in Iraq] had even remotely as much influence or public support as Mr. Sistani" but "the U.S. decided against reaching out to Mr. Sistani even after he publicly objected to the [U.S.] appointment of the unelected [Iraqi] Governing Council."
Largely due to al-Sistani's opposition to U.S. plans, Washington is now increasingly handing over stewardship for Iraq's political development to the United Nations.
As opinion leaders and policy makers now review the first year of the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq, the administration increasingly appears to hope new initiatives such as involving the UN can help assure smoother progress in the months ahead.
(The second part
of this two-part series looks in greater detail at some of the new U.S. initiatives.)