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Western Press Review: Growing Skepticism Over U.S. Policy In Iraq, Bosnia's Quest For Elusive Postwar Unity

Prague, 24 May 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Several items in the press today sound notes of alarm over the U.S. administration's policies in Iraq. As U.S. forces battle troops loyal to radical Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in several southern Iraqi cities, many Western observers continue to question whether the White House has a viable plan for bringing security to Iraq, or whether its approach is merely reactionary and focused largely on damage control. Press discussion today also addresses the difficulties of establishing unity in Bosnia while so many issues from the country's war-torn past remain unsettled.


The paper's Bob Herbert expresses his despair over the options available for U.S. policy in Iraq. "We had no business launching this war," he says. And as the situation in the country deteriorates amid a growing insurgency and mounting casualties, Herbert asks, "How do you get a logical foothold on a war that was nurtured from the beginning on absurd premises?"

As U.S. President George W. Bush prepares to address the nation tonight to better explain his administration's strategy in Iraq, Herbert says Bush's "reservoir of credibility on Iraq is bone-dry. His approval ratings are going down. Conservative voices in opposition to his policies are growing louder. And the troops themselves are becoming increasingly disenchanted with their mission. Yet no one knows quite what to do."

Herbert says Americans are now "torn between a desire to stop the madness by pulling the plug on this tragic and hopeless adventure and the realization that the U.S., for the time being, may be the only safeguard against a catastrophic civil war" in Iraq.

"There's a terrible sense of dread filtering across America at the moment," Herbert says. And this dread stems from the suspicion "that we all may be passengers in a vehicle that has made a radically wrong turn and is barreling along a dark road, with its headlights off and with someone behind the wheel who may not know how to drive."


The Boston daily reprints a letter from one of its readers, identified as R. Dirth from New Hampshire. Dirth writes: "Whether you agree with the war in Iraq or not, it is now clear that the occupation plan was supremely flawed. Its hallmarks -- arrogance, secrecy, a failure to listen to external, expert voices, and a failure to involve others in the planning process -- bear no resemblance to American values and processes." The administration of President George W. Bush, which was "so capable of steamrolling any opposition to the war, has proven incapable of articulating a coherent plan for delivering stability."

The Bush administration is now asking Congress to approve tens of billions of dollars for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sources say the administration's likely request will amount to between $50 billion and $95 billlion. And yet, says Dirth, "Nowhere in this request is there any evidence of a plan to address the massive shortcomings of their flipflop strategies to date, or any recognition that a plan is needed to actually pacify the country, or any specifics regarding what the 30 June transfer of sovereignty will actually entail."

Dirth says the world "now knows that if there was indeed a plan, it was fluffy, naive, and devoid of critical thought."

The U.S. Pentagon needs more money, and needs it now, Dirth says. But U.S. senators should be more forceful in demanding how this money will be spent. Any senators that fall short of demanding this accountability from the U.S. administration "should be considered derelict in their duties and held accountable by their constituents."


David Phillips of the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations, also a onetime senior adviser to the U.S. State Department, says "Pentagon mismanagement [is] part of a disturbing pattern."

Pentagon officials rejected the lengthy and copiously researched Future of Iraq project for post-Saddam Hussein political reconstruction "simply because it was an initiative of the State Department," during a "bureaucratic turf battle" for influence. And yet Pentagon officials "had no plan of their own." They ignored the advice of Iraqis except Ahmad Chalabi, head of the Iraqi National Congress, the former exile opposition group. And the Pentagon "obscured or withheld" much "critical information" from Congress.

Phillips says U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his closest advisers "thought they could liberate a nation without even talking with those they were liberating." Moreover, Rumsfeld's Pentagon "never had a policy or a program."

In their rush to install the controversial figure of Chalabi in power, Pentagon officials "discouraged an Iraqi-led process that would culminate in a basic law and an elected Iraqi assembly." After having been "[denied] self-rule, Iraqis became disaffected with the presence of U.S. occupation. The failure to hand over power to Iraqis is at the root of resentment and rebellion," Phillips says.

He writes: "As a result of the Pentagon's mismanagement, hundreds of American soldiers and thousands of Iraqis have died needlessly. In Iraq, the well has been poisoned and a hard job made even harder. The fight against terrorism and the cause of global democracy are also casualties of war."

After a year "of failed occupation, the administration is finally focused on giving power to Iraqis and establishing self-rule. It's a year behind schedule, but not too late to salvage democracy in Iraq."


The weekly news magazine's Mark Mazzetti says the fortunes of Ahmad Chalabi, the leader of Iraq's erstwhile exile opposition group the Iraqi National Congress (INC), closely mirror the fortunes of the country itself. Following the fall of Baghdad in April 2003, the U.S. Pentagon ushered Chalabi into Iraq to take a leading role in his country's post-Saddam Hussein political transition. He had the support of many at the Pentagon and the U.S. vice president, and seemed "poised for a triumphant return as the Bush administration's man in Baghdad."

But Mazzetti says, "[Just] as the Bush team has had to face the bloody realities of a messy occupation, so has Chalabi faced a dizzying spiral of decline." First, U.S. officials discredited information provided by Chalabi's group concerning Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. Then Washington ended its $335,000 monthly payments to the INC and opened a criminal probe into some of its officials. Last week, Mazzetti writes, "the fall from grace was complete: Iraqi police, backed by U.S. troops, raided Chalabi's Baghdad headquarters as part of a wider corruption and espionage probe into his operations."

In recent months, Chalabi has become an increasingly vocal critic of the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq, thus "reducing his clout within the administration and angering even his strongest supporters." But Mazzetti says, after months spent trying "to shed his image as Washington's puppet, Chalabi has yet to win over those who now control his political fortunes: the Iraqi people."


With the discrediting of Ahmad Chalabi, long the favored Iraqi exile leader of the U.S. Pentagon, the U.S. administration has once again affirmed the failure of its strategy in Iraq, the French daily says. Following the scandal over abuses at Abu Ghurayb prison, the attack on a wedding party that killed up to 45 people, and the persistent guerrilla reprisals against the U.S. occupation, the neoconservatives' Iraq hero Chalabi has now become a U.S. enemy.

Chalabi told the leaders in Washington everything they wanted to hear, and it was obvious that the U.S. strategists thus could not reconcile their lofty expectations with the realities in Iraq. The many errors and crimes that have followed the fall of Baghdad can be understood -- but not justified -- by this ideological blindness. And the failures of Chalabi, now a U.S. scapegoat, are also the failures of the United States.


Staff writer Philip Shishkin says the "continuing search for graves and bodies, and an intensifying hunt for those believed responsible, keeps Bosnia far from finding unity and reconciliation that will bring an end to its nine-year occupation by multinational forces -- and help it attain a solid economic footing."

Dozens wanted for war crimes remain at large. And as the West "struggles with nation-building efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan," Shishkin says Bosnia "serves as a reminder of how difficult it is to fashion a viable and democratic nation-state out of mutually distrustful ethnic groups with disparate agendas."

As former Yugoslav state Slovenia and other nations in the region join the European Union, "many young Bosnians worry their country is being held back by its past." With a nearly 40 percent unemployment rate, Bosnia "badly needs international investment and economic overhauls, both of which are hindered by the slow pace of healing the scars of war."

Almost a decade after the war, Shishkin says the Republika Srpska's authorities "haven't arrested a single war-crimes suspect, prompting sharp rebukes from Western diplomats and consternation in the Bosnian Muslim part of the country." The United States and Europe are keeping up "immense pressure" on Bosnia "to start delivering war criminals to international justice, promising financial aid and better ties with NATO and the European Union as a reward."

But Shishkin says the region's "[old] divisions, coupled with conflicting interpretations of Bosnia's recent history, fester just beneath the surface."