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Iraq: Has The U.S.-Led Coalition Lost The Initiative?

Continuing unrest in Iraq is raising doubts about whether the U.S.-led coalition still holds the initiative in the country. The current situation is in sharp contrast to just several months ago, when the coalition appeared to have things largely in hand.

Prague, 5 May 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Coalition forces in Iraq face deadly attacks on a daily basis. Some 130 U.S. soldiers were killed in attacks in April alone -- the deadliest month of the occupation. Coalition military bases are regularly attacked with mortars by anticoalition insurgents.

Many Iraqi roads are unsafe to travel. And at least eight foreign civilian hostages are still being held by insurgents in Iraq.

In Al-Fallujah, a hotbed of Sunni resistance to the occupation, responsibility for security is now being transferred to Iraqi forces after U.S. forces began pulling back after a three-week siege of the city. U.S. Marines encircling Al-Fallujah had engaged in fierce fighting with insurgents following the murder and mob mutilation of four Western security contractors. Many Iraqis view the pullback of the Marines as a victory for the resistance.

“We consider ourselves part of Fallujah, and we will stay here, defending and protecting the women and children of Fallujah."
In the holy Shi'a cities of Al-Najaf and Karbala, south of Baghdad, U.S. troops are still in a standoff with radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and members of his militia. One U.S. soldier died in fighting in Karbala today.

Meanwhile, the U.S. and British militaries are battling serious accusations that their soldiers have been abusing Iraqi prisoners.

Has the U.S.-led coalition lost the initiative in Iraq?

Charles Heyman is a senior defense analyst for Jane's Consultancy Group in London.

"It's probably better to say that they are losing momentum, because you need momentum in military operations and up to now the momentum has been with the coalition," he said. "But the coalition is certainly losing momentum, there is no doubt about that -- probably because there are not enough coalition troops on the ground to deal with a countrywide insurgency."

Heyman says the U.S. pullback from Al-Fallujah should not be considered a defeat. He says it would have been unwise for coalition forces to have launched an all-out assault against the city, considering the possibility of civilian casualties.

Heyman notes that while the coalition may have indeed lost some of the control it enjoyed earlier, the Al-Fallujah pullback might also be considered an outbreak of common sense.

However, Heyman says it is evident now that the some 150,000 coalition troops in Iraq -- though capable of dealing with the Sunni insurgency -- cannot cope with both Sunni and Shi'a rebels.

"The coalition is certainly in a difficult position," Heyman says.

He believes that what he calls a "messy political compromise" might emerge in the next six months, probably brokered by the United Nations, that could allow coalition troops to withdraw from Iraq by saying they had achieved their aims.

Heyman says recent events indicate that any development is possible in Iraq: "We've all seen how quickly things change. If somebody had said a month ago that the Americans would leave Fallujah to Iraqis and an Iraqi general, most people would have said that's impossible. So we've seen some impossibilities in the last 10 days. It's not out of the question that we might see some more."

Yesterday, however, U.S. military officials announced plans to keep as many as 138,000 troops in Iraq through 2005.

Several attempts by RFE/RL to speak with a representative of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad were unsuccessful.

Mahmud Uthman is a Kurdish member of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council. He says that, without doubt, the U.S. has lost the initiative in Iraq. The best example, he says, is Al-Fallujah.

"Their initiative looks actually to be lost," he said. "For example, they were supposed to end the terrorists, the Saddamists, the people who have all gathered in Fallujah and were fighting [against the coalition]. But now those people are almost controlling the city, you see."

Uthman says it indicates that the ability of the coalition to impose its own solutions is gone. The main reason for this is that the coalition -- from the very beginning -- failed in its efforts to stabilize the country.

Uthman says the situation has turned bizarre, with the coalition believing it has no alternative but to put Hussein's former generals in power.

Former Iraqi army Major General Muhammad Latif is now in command of about 1,100 Iraqi troops who are already moving into the town. Latif has stressed that the new Iraqi forces are different from U.S. troops.

"We are not neutral,” he says. “We consider ourselves part of Fallujah, and we will stay here, defending and protecting the women and children of Fallujah."

Asked by Reuters if he was in contact with insurgents in the city or had reached a deal with them, Latif said: "There is no agreement with them whatsoever, but when there is peace, the enemies of peace escape."

Can the Iraqi force succeed where U.S. troops failed? Major General James Mattis, commander of the 1st Marines Division, says it is too early to tell whether Latif's troops can pacify Al-Fallujah.

"The proof is in the execution," he told Reuters. "We will have to see how that goes."