Nine months ago, when U.S. cruise missiles and precision bombs began raining down on Baghdad in the war's first salvos, the United States probably never imagined where it would be today -- fighting a guerrilla war with no easy exit in sight. But with the recent capture of deposed leader Saddam Hussein, there is new hope that Washington can improve stability in Iraq next year.
Washington, 17 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- It was a sunny day, the first of May. Decked out as a "Top Gun" war pilot, President George W. Bush rode in the cockpit of Navy S-3B Viking, landing to a hero's welcome on an aircraft carrier off the coast of California.
Surrounded by sailors just back from the war, Bush told the nation that America's liberation of Iraq had been achieved, just six weeks after the war's first shots. "Officers and sailors of the 'USS Abraham Lincoln,' my fellow Americans: Major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed," Bush said.
But in the following eight months, some 200 U.S. soldiers, almost 40 coalition troops, dozens of international aid workers, including top UN envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello, and scores of Iraqi civilians have died in attacks by insurgents. It has become clear that, despite the recent capture of Saddam Hussein and the toppling of his regime, the war itself is far from over.
Meanwhile, U.S.-led arms inspectors have yet to find any weapons of mass destruction. The Bush administration has had to face accusations it manipulated intelligence to sell the public on invading Iraq.
Now, as Washington faces a treacherous new year in Iraq, public opinion -- while buoyed by Saddam's capture -- is reflecting concerns over U.S. handling of the post-Hussein situation in Iraq, jeopardizing Bush's chances of winning re-election next November.
Bethsheba Crocker is a post-conflict reconstruction expert with Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies. Asked to sum up U.S. feelings on the war at this moment, she told RFE/RL: "I think the concern is that if there continues to be a heavy degree of U.S. casualties in Iraq, as we've seen, then I think the pressures will just mount in an election year on both sides, and we may see increased calls for just pulling out of Iraq if the situation really starts to even worsen."
Following Hussein's capture on 13 December, Bush vowed that the United States will "stay the course" for as long as it takes to stabilize the situation in Iraq. Bush also said Saddam Hussein will be tried by Iraqis in a way that will meet international standards.
Bush also warned that Iraq remains a dangerous place, despite Hussein being in custody. "The terrorists in Iraq remain dangerous. The work of our coalition remains difficult and will require further sacrifice. Yet, it should now be clear to all -- Iraq is on the path to freedom," he said.
Bush said Hussein's capture should help fearful Iraqis realize the deposed dictator will never return and that they can now embrace a new, democratic future.
Last month, Washington announced a major shift in policy -- the U.S. will hand over power to Iraqis by 1 July. Previously, the administration had insisted a constitution be written before Iraqi sovereignty is restored, a process that could take up to two years.
But those plans risk being compromised by a growing insurgency, which struck repeatedly after Hussein's capture -- as if to prove the fight is still on. Washington is responding with an Israeli-style counterinsurgency campaign in which U.S. Special Forces are seeking to root out guerrillas.
Kenneth Allard, a former military intelligence officer and now an analyst, remains unconvinced. "We can certainly look at how the Israelis organize their counterinsurgency actions and tactics," he said. "But that's as far as it goes, because the whole point of this is the fact that what you have to have is a strategy. And I'm not convinced yet the U.S. does."
Allard told RFE/RL he believes Washington is caught between diametrically opposed objectives -- a desire to win, and the "need" to get out as soon as possible.
Under the current U.S. plan, power will gradually return to Iraqis through a process next spring, when local councils elect delegates to form a provisional assembly, which in turn will appoint a transitional government by 1 July. The assembly would also appoint a committee to draft a constitution, whose passage by referendum would lead to democratic elections. After the June handover, the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority will cease to exist. U.S. forces will remain in Iraq, but their numbers are likely to go down.
Allard believes such a strategy is ambiguous about the United States' intentions in Iraq after July, while selling short the security challenges that remain. "That very ambiguity is at the heart of what faces us right today, because we really find ourselves in a bit of a quandary as to how long we intend to stay," he said. "Second only to that is what resources we intend to commit. I just simply have to tell you that that falls far short of the usual requirement in a war, which is to obtain an absolutely unambiguous victory and to define the terms accordingly."
Robert Hutchinson of "Jane's Defence Week" in London says the key to the U.S. counterinsurgency effort lies in getting the right intelligence. But he told RFE/RL that the battle for Iraqi hearts and minds will intensify if the United States takes tactical risks by relying on shoddy intelligence or pursues a campaign in which innocent civilians become victims.
"It is going to be a public affairs war. It's going to be hostilities fought on uneven ground because the insurgents will try all they can to wrong-foot the coalition forces and cause incidents which will reflect badly on them, to try and engender public support for their cause," Hutchinson said.
Still, U.S. officials have expressed the hope that Hussein's capture will embolden Iraqis to share more information with coalition forces, thereby reducing the chances of any U.S. blunders. And Hussein's capture shows U.S. intelligence may indeed be improving.
But despite the administration's best-laid plans for Iraq, analysts say they will be difficult to follow through on. Already this month, half the members in the first new Iraqi army battalion resigned because they were unhappy with their terms of employment.
Frederick Barton is a former deputy UN high commissioner for refugees. An expert in post-conflict reconstruction, Barton was asked by RFE/RL if power can realistically be handed over to Iraqis next year if security remains poor. "It's not a place that you would want to be a practicing politician in," he said. "You wouldn't want to hold any responsibility with the thought that your next step could be your last one, and that's an awful lot to ask of everybody. Heroism is preferable in small doses. And we're asking that of a whole lot of people there. So until it gets safe, the answer is probably no."
While U.S. officials are hopeful the capture of Hussein could take the wind out of the insurgency, many analysts believe it will carry on. If so, then Iraq in 2004 will continue to be a "long, hard slog" -- just as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, in a moment of candor last fall, said it would be.