Accessibility links

Western Press Review: Mounting Casualties In Iraq Renew Debate Over U.S. Strategy

  • Khatya Chhor

Prague, 3 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The focus in the media today once again returns to Iraq, as multiple attacks yesterday rendered it one of the deadliest days for U.S. forces since the war began in March. A Chinook helicopter crashed south of Al-Fallujah after being hit by a rocket attack, killing 16 soldiers and wounding about 20. Another U.S. soldier was killed in a Baghdad explosion, while a roadside blast killed two U.S. civilian contractors.

The latest violence has many observers questioning whether U.S. forces are making enough progress toward stabilizing the country and whether a conceptual shift will be needed to truly "win the peace" in the country.


"The New York Times" publishes a piece today by columnist H.D.S. Greenway of "The Boston Globe." Greenway says recent opinion polls show that most Iraqis now regard U.S.-led troops in their country as an occupying force rather than a liberating one. "It is also becoming evident that what Iraqis want Iraq to be may not fit with America's plans for them."

Washington has mishandled much in both the pre- and post-Hussein periods, he says. But the U.S. administration's mistakes may now be beside the point, as Iraq is now "a magnet for terrorism that is a real threat now, even if it wasn't before." The price of failing to stabilize Iraq "is too great to pay."

He suggests the U.S. must "put more authority in the hands of Iraqis just as soon as is practically possible and accept that what Iraqis want for their future government may not be exactly what Washington wants." He also cautions against "[forcing] a market economy upon Iraq too quickly, to avoid the economic chaos that happened in Russia when communism fell."

Greenway calls for a new UN mandate and a multilateral coalition to take a bigger role in the country. "The only hope for Iraq," he says, "is for American power to be exercised in concert with allies and other countries that have an interest in peace and stability."


A commentary in the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" examines the strategic significance of the latest U.S. casualties in Iraq. Resistance fighters yesterday brought down a U.S. Chinook helicopter, killing 16 soldiers and injuring around 20 in the deadliest single attack on American forces since the war in Iraq began in March.

The "FAZ" says the latest attacks will make Washington's withdrawal even more difficult. Although the guerrilla resistance does not threaten the overall authority of the Americans and its allies in the country, it nevertheless demoralizes the occupying forces and slows the rebuilding of the country. Moreover, says the commentary, the latest casualty reports will influence the domestic mood in the U.S.

The debate over whether Hussein actually constituted such a threat as to merit the U.S.-led war will continue to be the subject of much debate. However, it is now clear to all that a premature retreat "would leave utter chaos in Iraq and would rock the already unstable Gulf region."

As things stand, the paper says, even those who were opposed to the war are now bound to contribute to America's difficult mission in Iraq.


The loss of 16 U.S. soldiers in a Chinook helicopter crash yesterday is the costliest single incident to date for the U.S. in Iraq, says "Liberation's" Gerard Dupuy. From a strictly military point of view, the dead and wounded do not call for too dire a prognosis. An average of one fatality a day since the end of "major combat operations" was announced on 1 May remains fairly reasonable if one takes into account the size of the force in Iraq. But politically, the mounting casualties may prove much more expensive.

Recent polls show that support for President George W. Bush's war continues to crumble. While it is still too early to call forth the "specter" of Vietnam, four Americans out of five are beginning to fear they are stuck in a military quagmire.

Predictably, says Dupuy, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld pledged that American policy will remain the same, although the transfer of power to Iraqis will be "accelerated." Dupuy questions whether this slight shift of focus indicates a renewed interest in international opinion, which has repeatedly called for a rapid transfer of power to Iraqi representatives.

Despite the unanimous passage of a UN resolution on post-Saddam Iraq, he says the international community remains circumspect where it really matters. At the Iraqi donors conference in Madrid on 23-24 October neither France nor Germany -- the European Union's economic powerhouses -- pledged any new funds to help rebuild the country.


The lead editorial in the British "Guardian" today says the downing of a U.S. Chinook helicopter in Iraq yesterday "may have a disproportionate psychological impact on U.S. military operations in Iraq and on U.S. public opinion." While the crash was a tragedy, "its significance will be greatly magnified by its context."

The perception in the United States and around the world "is that the security situation in Iraq is deteriorating." Coalition troops come under an average of some 30 attacks daily, and this toll "appears to be convincing more and more ordinary Americans that [President George W.] Bush and his officials are not in control of a situation that they, uniquely, created."

The debate over whether foreign militants, lingering Iraqi Ba'athists or Al-Qaeda sympathizers are responsible for such attacks is "almost beside the point as long as this maelstrom remains unchecked," the paper says. "The Chinook disaster makes the world's most technologically advanced military power look yet more vulnerable than it did before -- and thus will the psychological impact of the attack be magnified even further, in terms of the encouragement it will afford those who physically oppose the American presence."

In this "unnecessary, avoidable, unfinished war," "The Guardian" says, the "bottom line is relentless violence and mayhem and a U.S. leadership that appears powerless to stop it."


Columnist Christian Wernicke in the "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" says NATO Secretary-General George Robertson was correct when he declared, "If NATO fails in Afghanistan, then NATO fails as such."

In other words, Wernicke says, the fateful issue is whether the West succeeds in giving a future to a country torn for decades by civil war and which suffered under an extremist Islamic regime in the form of the Taliban.

This is, indeed, a difficult task, considering the dangers lying in wait at every turn, says Wernicke. Newly invigorated Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters are making their way into the country from Iran and Pakistan, threatening international aid workers and preventing rebuilding efforts in a number of provinces.

Meanwhile, fighting continues to erupt between rival warlords, claiming 20 lives this weekend alone. The interim government headed by Hamid Karzai is tenuous, and its influence on the distant valleys between Herat, Kunduz, and Kandahar is near zero. Nor is the government or the 5,700 International Security Assistance Force soldiers capable of hindering opium trafficking.

Wernicke says the war against terrorism in Afghanistan is far from over and that only Berlin has responded to requests for international assistance.

Meanwhile, NATO has failed to answer the call for some 3,000 soldiers in Afghanistan. Wernicke concludes that "the allies seem to have forgotten what they risk by ignoring the issue -- they are risking both the Afghans' and their own futures."


"The Washington Post's" Fred Hiatt says in answer to the question of whether U.S. forces are "winning the peace" in Iraq, the simple answer is: "More than you might think, less than you might have hoped."

Writing from Baghdad, Hiatt says: "Daily life in much of the country is back to something like normal. In Shiite towns south of Baghdad, people bustle through crowded markets to buy dates and pomegranates with nary an American soldier in sight. Traffic in Baghdad is heavy, and [representative] councils are at work in neighborhoods, towns and cities." Street crime "is down, and newly trained Iraqi police are increasingly visible."

However, he says, as multiple attacks yesterday have shown, "there is in fact no 'peace' yet to win." Assaults on U.S. forces are on the rise, "and U.S. ignorance of the size and nature of the opposition reflects a continuing and perplexing failure of intelligence. Electricity, oil production, sewerage and other utilities are being steadily restored but also regularly sabotaged." And by now, "almost everyone agrees that American troops are wearing out their welcome."

So U.S.-led forces in the Gulf "find themselves in a race to improve security, train Iraqi forces and start a constitutional process before the manifestations of occupation become intolerable to a preponderance of Iraqis." And yet the toughest political challenge lies ahead: to create the first-ever representative government "in an ethnically fractured nation surrounded by neighbors hostile to the enterprise."


Writing in the "Los Angeles Times," staff writer Doyle McManus says the U.S. administration has adopted "a deliberate change in tone after a week of setbacks on several fronts" in Iraq.

The increasing sophistication of attacks on U.S.-led troops have cast new doubt on the White House's claims of early and rapid success following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. So as the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush seeks to reinvigorate support for the war effort, there is less rhetorical "bravado" and "franker warnings of further setbacks ahead."

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said it was reasonable to expect increasing attacks in the near future, adding that the mission in Iraq is "a rough business." McManus says Rumsfeld's comments indicate "a shift [in] tone [from] earlier pronouncements," when the White House insisted that increasing attacks were a response to U.S. progress.

Many of those within the administration, some of their critics and several independent experts are in agreement that "more forces are needed to defeat the insurgency; the question is where they come from and how soon." But several U.S. officials have already largely given up former hopes of welcoming significant numbers of troops from other nations to help out in Iraq.


In a contribution to the British "Guardian," author Tariq Ali discusses the indigenous opposition to the neo-colonial U.S.-led occupation of Iraq. "[Once] you occupy a country, you have to behave in colonial fashion," says Ali. "It is an ugly occupation, and this determines the response."

He notes that Iraqi opposition sources estimate more than 40 resistance organizations are active in Iraq, ranging from former Ba'athists to "dissident communists" denouncing the Iraqi Communist Party's support for the occupation; Iraqi nationalists; former soldiers from the Iraqi National Army, disbanded by the U.S.-led coalition; and Sunni and Shi'a religious groups.

"The key fact of the resistance is that it is decentralized -- the classic first state of guerrilla warfare against an occupying army."

Ali says, "Sooner or later, all foreign troops will have to leave Iraq. If they do not do so voluntarily, they will be driven out. Their continuing presence is a spur to violence. When Iraq's people regain control of their own destiny, they will decide the internal structures and the external policies of their country. One can hope that this will combine democracy and social justice," he says.

But in the meantime, "Iraqis have one thing of which they can be proud of and of which British and U.S. citizens should be envious: an opposition."

(RFE/RL's Dora Slaba contributed to this report.)