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Iraq: U.S. Faces Growing Costs Of Occupation, Debates How To Share Burden

  • Charles Recknagel

Several events this week have highlighted how costly it is for the United States to occupy Iraq. Amid continuing attacks, the total number of U.S. soldiers who have died keeping the peace in Iraq now surpasses the number who died during the war to topple Saddam Hussein. And assessing Iraq's economy, U.S. civil administrator L. Paul Bremer now says the total bill for the country's economic needs is "almost impossible to exaggerate."

Prague, 28 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The conflict in Iraq reached a grim milestone this week as the number of U.S. soldiers who have died since Washington declared an end to major combat on 1 May equaled, then overtook, the number who died in the war.

The total number who died during the war -- both in combat and from noncombat causes such as illness and accidents -- totaled 137. As of today, the total number of soldiers who have died since 1 May stands at 142.

The milestone drew the attention of major U.S. dailies in editorials that further deepened the divide between critics and supporters of U.S. President George W. Bush's postwar Iraq strategy.

"The New York Times," which has frequently criticized the White House for almost unilaterally invading and occupying Iraq, wrote yesterday that "the grim statistic mocks President Bush's triumphant appearance aboard the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln on 1 May, when he declared an end to major combat operations."

The paper added: "It [also] makes clear the United States will pay a high price in blood and treasure if the Bush administration persists in its misguided effort to pacify and rebuild Iraq without extensive international support."

But another daily, "The Washington Times," wrote that Americans cannot expect overnight success and must be prepared to pay the costs of winning a larger war on terror. Columnist Tony Blankley said: "Beating Saddam's army is not the end of the war, but the beginning of it." He added that "those who say we should turn over responsibilities to an international set" are putting America's fate in the hands of people "who are already mentally committed to appeasing the terrorist culture."

The papers' commentaries appeared a day after Bush himself used an appearance on 26 August at a gathering of U.S. veterans to state that America will not "retreat" in the face of attacks on its soldiers or the bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad.

"Retreat in the face of terror would only invite further and bolder attacks. There will be no retreat," Bush said.

Bush also said much has already been achieved in Iraq because "Middle Eastern countries no longer fear subversion and attack from Saddam Hussein" and "Iraq is no longer a source of funding for suicide bombers" against Israel. He also said Iraq's torture chambers are closed and Iraqis now are free to speak without fear of execution.

As the debate in the U.S. grows over the cost of occupying Iraq, some analysts say it reflects Americans' increasing awareness of the size of the challenge Washington faces in that country.

Washington went to war with Iraq to preempt what it called an urgent threat from weapons of mass destruction -- weapons that have yet to be found. But the Bush administration also said its long-range goal is to give Iraq a democratic government that can serve as a model for other Middle Eastern states where, policymakers argue, autocratic regimes breed Islamic radicalism.

Julian Lindley-French, a regional expert at the Geneva Center for Security Policy in Switzerland, calls the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq a "massive geopolitical gambit" whose ramifications are only now becoming clear to the American and British publics.

"This was a massive geopolitical gambit, to basically [eliminate Saddam Hussein as] a key player in the Arab world, to reorganize the nature of relationships in the Arab world by having a large American military presence and therefore force a shift of policy not just in Iraq, but a shift of policy of all the Arab states," Lindley-French says.

Lindley-French says that many people in the Arab world might indeed welcome more democracy, but Washington's efforts are complicated by the widespread perception in the region that it is fostering change out of its own self-interest.

The analyst says that perception creates resentment that encourages attacks by Hussein loyalists and increasingly draws Islamic militant groups to Iraq to hit coalition troops. And he says the resentment will likely remain strong until the U.S. gives the occupation of Iraq a greater sense of international legitimacy.

"The U.S. does not have legitimacy in the Arab world for a range of reasons. The U.K. does not particularly have it for historical reasons.... [Until] we can get our allies involved within the orb of UN legitimacy, where so many states become involved that it develops a momentum of legitimacy of its own, the operation is always going to be seen as a 'them and us' [situation], where the British and Americans are seen by the Arab community as the occupying power," Lindley-French says.

So far, Washington has said it welcomes contributions of soldiers from other countries to share the peacekeeping burden but only within the framework of full U.S. control over Iraq's development. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has said the Security Council would not give its mandate to a multinational force for Iraq unless Washington ceded some control over decision-making in the country.

In addition to the debate over the growing number of American deaths in Iraq, the U.S. public is increasingly concerned by the growing financial cost of Iraq's reconstruction. That issue, too, was highlighted this week as U.S. civil administrator for Iraq L. Paul Bremer said that the cost of reviving the country's economy is "almost impossible to exaggerate."

Bremer told "The Washington Post" in an article appearing yesterday that creating a national system to deliver clean water in Iraq will cost an estimated $16 billion over four years.

He also said that just to meet current electrical demand in the country will take until next summer and cost another $2 billion. He added that engineers have told him Iraq should spend $13 billion more over five years to put the aged electrical system in good order.

The administrator's estimates underlined the problems of reconstructing an infrastructure which has been weakened to the point of collapse by more than a decade of UN sanctions followed by extensive postwar looting of equipment. The reconstruction costs are independent of what the Pentagon estimates is a cost of $4 billion a month for U.S. military operations in the country.

Bremer said that Iraq's oil revenues will not be sufficient to cover the country's financial needs even a year from now, when he expects exports to again reach their prewar level. The financial shortfall will have to be made up by Washington and that worries many American lawmakers when the U.S. budget deficit itself is predicted to reach a record $480 billion next year.

In hopes of sharing the burden of reconstructing Iraq, the Bush administration is preparing an international donors conference in Madrid in October. The Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq also is pressing the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council to open many Iraqi industries to foreign investment.

But the success of these initiatives could again depend on the extent to which Washington is willing to cede some of its control in Iraq to other countries. That question could now become the major issue at the Madrid conference two months from now, just as the question of internationalizing Iraq's security is already the major issue at the UN.

Reuters reported this week that U.S. officials have no plans to ask Congress for extra reconstruction money for Iraq before the donors' meeting. The agency quoted the spokesman for the White House Office of Management and Budget, Trent Duffy, as saying that "there have been no determinations about the size, scope, timing, or process" of any new requests to Congress.

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