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Iraq: U.S. Facing Its Greatest Challenges To Date In Iraq

Abuse in Iraqi prisons by U.S. forces The challenges in Iraq for the U.S. administration have never been greater. Among the toughest are coping with a crisis of confidence generated by the photos of abuse of Iraqi prisoners and quelling the insurgency of radical Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

Prague, 13 May 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The past few weeks have been among the most difficult faced by Washington in Iraq, and many of the toughest issues still remain to be resolved.

One of the most urgent problems is how to reverse the negative image of the U.S. presence in Iraq caused by the photos of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghurayb.

The scandal, which began late last month with the worldwide publication of photographs showing Iraqi prisoners being abused and sexually humiliated by some U.S. soldiers at the Baghdad prison, is likely to worsen in the weeks ahead.

U.S. lawmakers were shown additional photographs, as well as videotapes, of abuse in a private screening yesterday. The new material -- which comes from a Pentagon investigation -- reportedly depicts scenes of even greater brutality, including forced sex, than have been seen already.

Some legislators from U.S. President George W. Bush's Republican Party said yesterday the new pictures should not be released to the media because anger generated by the images could endanger U.S. forces overseas.

The abuse scandal has put the U.S. administration on the defensive, with U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld -- who arrived today on a surprise visit to Baghdad -- being called repeatedly to testify before congressional committees.

Rumsfeld, who asked the Senate yesterday for an additional 25,000 million dollars for operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, said he believes Washington will succeed in Iraq despite the current difficulties: "I look at Afghanistan -- 25 million people liberated, women voting, able to go to a doctor. And I look at Iraq and all I can say is, 'I hope it comes out well.' And I believe it will."

Washington has also been hard-pressed to quell multiple armed insurgencies in Iraq that made April the bloodiest month for U.S. forces there.
"The current struggle in Iraq is the tipping point in the global war on terror." -- Julian Lindley-French, a security expert at the Geneva Institute for Security Policy in Switzerland

In the central city of Al-Fallujah, U.S. forces have succeeded in ending fighting by putting the city under the control of an Iraqi-led security force. But a top U.S. field commander said today that the force -- the Fallujah Brigade -- has yet to collect heavy weapons in the city as part of a disarmament deal with civic leaders. U.S. Marine General James Conway warned that the timeline for disarmament is "not endless" and that U.S. troops ringing the city remain ready to resume action if necessary.

In parts of southern Iraq, U.S. forces continue to face an insurgency by militiamen loyal to Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. U.S. forces backed by tanks, jets, and helicopters reportedly killed at least 22 militants in fighting in Karbala yesterday. In recent days, coalition troops have clashed with the cleric's Al-Mahdi Army in Karbala, Al-Najaf, Al-Basrah and parts of Baghdad.

Al-Sadr told reporters in Najaf yesterday that he will disband his militia if top Shi'a religious authorities order him to do so, but otherwise he will continue fighting: "The dissolution of the Mahdi Army depends on the religious authorities, and it is a general issue, not a personal issue. So, if the religious authorities issue an edict to disband the Mahdi Army, then we will disband it. If not, then it will continue defending this country and its sanctity. The Mahdi Army is not a follower of some parties trying to sow division."

Al-Sadr did not say how he will respond to U.S. demands that he surrender himself to the coalition. The coalition is seeking to arrest him over charges he was involved in the murder of a rival cleric in 2003.

Now, with the planned date for handover to a sovereign Iraqi government just some six weeks away, prospects for stability in the country are being complicated by uncertainties over how that government will be formed.

The top UN envoy responsible for brokering the makeup of the government, Lakhdar Brahimi, has proposed a UN-appointed "government of experts." But the plan faces growing resistance from some Iraqi leaders, who fear they will be marginalized.

At the same time, Washington has signaled that the amount of sovereignty the new government enjoys could be limited due to the poor security situation. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said late in April that the United States will remain in charge of military and security matters in Iraq, as well as being the country's main source of economic support.

Russia and France this week said they will insist the United States give Iraqis a major say in their future before the two permanent Security Council members vote for any new UN resolution endorsing the 30 June transfer of power.

The United States wants a new UN resolution to build international support for its Iraq policy and possibly provide the basis for a U.S.-led multinational security force that would allow Washington to reduce its own troop deployment.

The sizable challenges now faced by Washington have deepened opinion splits over the Bush administration's handling of Iraq, both in the United States and worldwide.

Julian Lindley-French, a security expert at the Geneva Institute for Security Policy in Switzerland, said the challenges Washington faces must now strengthen its resolve to create a stable post-Saddam Iraq: If [anticoalition groups in Iraq] happened to get rid of us prematurely, if we concoct a reason to get out, there would be chaos, there would be civil war, and the likes of Al-Qaeda would be horribly involved in it."

He continued: "Saudi Arabia is next door, the whole region would be in a mess. You've seen insurgents now in Syria, in Jordan. This is the real tipping point of the global war on terror. The current struggle in Iraq is the tipping point in the global war on terror."

But some other analysts say Washington's current problems in Iraq demonstrate the U.S. should not have intervened in Iraq.

Hazem Saghie, a senior political commentator for the London-based Arabic-language newspaper "Al-Hayat," said the past months have seen all of Washington's reasons for invading Iraq lose their credibility: "If you take the three main arguments that were raised as justification for occupying Iraq, which are the weapons of mass destruction, which proved wrong; the link with Al-Qaeda, that proved wrong; then the third, which is liberating the Iraqis, ended up the way we saw in Abu [Ghurayb]."

He warned that if Washington persists in occupying Iraq it will increase anti-American sentiment in the region: "I am afraid the main thing is that anti-Americanism will become extremely strong, and not only anti-Americanism but anti-enlightenment, anti-West[ern] [and] anti-democracy [sentiments]."

Saghie said Washington should regard its present difficulties in Iraq as a reason to reflect and look for new solutions, particularly at the international level.