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Iraq: Bush Faces Tough Questions After UN Bombing In Baghdad

  • Jeffrey Donovan

The 19 August bombing of the Baghdad offices of the United Nations were a stark reminder of the difficulties the United States faces in bringing security to Iraq. As attacks against U.S. troops continue amid the threat of further terrorist actions, what can Washington do to stem the rising tide of violence?

Washington, 21 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- In the wake of the 19 August truck bombing of the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad, U.S. President George W. Bush faces some tough questions.

Should his administration swallow its pride and internationalize the Iraqi crisis by asking the UN to assume a more central role in stabilizing and rebuilding the war-torn country?

Should Bush demonstrate his go-it-alone commitment by pouring more U.S. troops and dollars into Iraq?

Or should Washington simply make a few adjustments on the ground to confront the new violence in Iraq, but otherwise maintain the status quo?

Asked about those issues at a briefing yesterday, State Department Richard Boucher didn't rule anything out.

"The question of mandates, troops, things like that, has been a matter -- as you know -- under discussion at the United Nations before. That remains a question on the table. It is being discussed by different people. And as I said, it's important for the international community to support the United Nations and the effort, the commitment that they're making, that they're recommitting to now. And part of that discussion will look at how best they can do that," Boucher said.

Iraq will hold center stage today at the UN when the Security Council holds a previously scheduled meeting at which America and Britain are due to report on developments in Baghdad.

After the UN attack, Bush vowed he would stay the course in Iraq. But whether Bush will drop his opposition to greater UN involvement -- or increase U.S. troop levels -- remains the subject of intense speculation.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw has said that the bombing shows there must be a new Security Council mandate giving the UN a bigger role in Iraq. Washington has opposed that idea, believing it could complicate its military operations and weaken overall U.S. control.

But with its Iraq operations costing $4 billion a month, the U.S. badly wants other countries to contribute troops and know-how.

Yet France, India, and other nations have refused to do so unless Washington agrees to a greater UN role, including overseeing or at least approving the entry of international troops and the power to help form an interim Iraqi government.

Both Mexico and France said the attacks on the UN showed that the U.S. needs to welcome greater international involvement.

That sentiment extends to the U.S. government. Two senior members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee -- Democratic Senator Joseph Biden and Republican Senator Chuck Hagel -- yesterday urged Bush in a letter to grant the UN a broader role and recruit more police and military units from other countries.

But debate continues over what concessions the U.S. should make to draw in more international involvement. Raymond Tanter is an expert on terrorism and the Middle East with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He tells RFE/RL he believes that the bombing will encourage UN critics of the war -- such as France and Russia -- to embrace a new role in Iraq's reconstruction.

But, he says, those countries will now be compelled to accept U.S. terms in any new agreement on UN involvement.

"The likelihood that the allies, like France, will come on board under Washington-London terms of reference goes up as a consequence of the bombing of UN headquarters. The bombing, I think, will strengthen the American hand in the postwar reconstruction process. Others are more likely to come on board," Tanter said.

Others, however, take a different view.

William Nash is a retired U.S. Army general and former UN official in Kosovo. Nash tells RFE/RL that despite the pressure mounting on Bush to allow the UN to assume a more central role in Iraq, he believes Washington is unlikely to alter its stance.

"Despite the setbacks of yesterday [19 August] and the difficulties we have faced to date in Iraq, I see little energy on the part of the administration to internationalize the effort as much as I believe it should be," Nash said.

There is also new pressure on the administration to consider raising U.S. troop levels in Iraq, perhaps even doubling the current 140,000 forces, in a bid to stem the violence and facilitate reconstruction.

But Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld -- who backs a new vision for a high-tech military with smaller troop numbers -- yesterday rejected the idea, which is thought to be accepted by top uniformed military officials and even some Republican members of the U.S. Congress.

Rumsfeld said U.S. forces cannot guarantee security on "every street of Iraq" and that he saw no need to send more troops to the country. He added the focus should be on developing Iraq's own security forces.

"You need to provide security where it's possible to provide it, but it's not possible to provide it on every street corner and in every portion of a country the size of California. It will require a political process, an economical success and progress as well as an increased security capability, as we've said from the beginning," Rumsfeld said.

Tanter said he believes the U.S. will adjust its security strategy in several key areas.

"I think that the United States will increase the number of offensive patrols. Secondly, the United States will increase the pressure on those who are not sending troops over to join the coalition. And thirdly, I think that Washington will try to have aggressive patrols along the borders between Saudi Arabia and Iraq, to keep the jihadists from wandering over into Iraq," Tanter said.

Ruth Wedgwood, an expert in post-conflict reconstruction, is a professor of international law at Washington's Johns Hopkins University School for Advanced International Studies. A consultant to the Pentagon, Wedgwood tells RFE/RL that the bombing has shown the need for the U.S. to launch a major antiterrorist campaign in Iraq.

"Clearly, perimeter security is going to have to be a great concern now for every multilateral organization on the ground, just as it is now for the U.S. I do think it signals that we're going to have to have a very concerted antiterrorist campaign before we can really get the economy fully engaged. I do think it's likely that there's cooperative activity now between Al-Qaeda and the Ba'athists and we're going to have to root that out before we can really have any sort of satisfactory situation," Wedgwood said.

One strategy that the U.S. appears to have already set in motion is to train an Iraqi paramilitary force that could patrol Baghdad's streets and in the "Sunni triangle" around the capital and north to Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's hometown.

Such a force, which officials say could number up to 8,000 troops, would allow U.S. troops to take a lower profile. U.S. officials also hope that the Iraqi public would see any attacks on the new Iraqi force as an attack on Iraq itself, not on America.

Ahmad Chalabi, a member of Iraq's U.S.-appointed Governing Council, told reporters in Baghdad yesterday that Iraqi security cannot be achieved unless Iraqis themselves are made part of the process. He said the coalition is now "moving toward this option:"

"Security is the responsibility of the coalition forces. We are working to establish Iraqi civil defense forces and to improve and make the Iraqi police more efficient, more acceptable and remove all problems which existed in it so that Iraqis can participate," Chalabi said.

Critics, however, say that creating a new armed force would only add to the chaos. They also say Iraqis may not view an American-created force as legitimate, and that if it faces wide resistance, then it could inch the country further toward civil war.

Nash, the retired general, adds that by the time such a force is trained, terrorists will be likely to have struck again several times.