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Iraq: As Fighting Continues, One Question Emerges -- When Is a War Really Over?

The U.S. government has declared that "major combat" in Iraq has ended, but the fighting there is far from over. While many people tend to think of Iraq as being in a "postwar" stage, the deaths of almost 70 U.S. and British troops in the past two months highlight the ambiguity of the situation.

Washington, 26 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- On 1 May, U.S. President George W. Bush stood on the deck of the aircraft carrier "U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln" as it was returning from its combat mission in the Persian Gulf and declared: "Major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed."

What Bush did not say was that the war was over. And while most observers freely use the term "postwar Iraq," the fighting and killing there continues, if at a more modest pace.

In the nearly two months since Bush's pronouncement, 57 U.S. soldiers have been killed in Iraq -- 19 from hostile fire, 38 in accidents and other noncombat incidents. And British forces -- who were believed to have southern Iraq mostly under control -- recently came under attack. Six British military police were killed on 24 June, the first British casualties since 1 May. Four other British soldiers have been killed since then in noncombat situations.

In total, 238 U.S. and British soldiers have died so far in Iraq since the war began.

A war seldom ends at a specific point in time, even after a government or a military commander has formally surrendered. Some have suggested that Bush's decision not to declare the Iraq war over was actually an effort to keep the United Nations from asserting its own authority in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein.

But this is unlikely to have been Bush's motivation. That's according to Anthony Cordesman, who served as a senior intelligence and military analyst in both the U.S. State and Defense departments.

Cordesman told RFE/RL that, from the start, Bush and his senior aides consistently warned that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq would not end quickly because of their unconventional natures and the elusiveness of the enemy leaders in both countries.

This, Cordesman said, is particularly true of the continuing war in Afghanistan and elsewhere against Al-Qaeda, the terrorist network the United States blames for the attacks in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania on 11 September 2001.

Cordesman pointed to the October bombing on the Indonesian resort island of Bali, and noted that most of the victims were not Americans but Australians, a U.S. ally.

"We were told going into the war in Afghanistan that we are talking about an organization [Al-Qaeda] with cells in up to 80 countries. What we have watched is that warning become true in places as far away as Bali and against [Al-Qaeda] opponents as unpredictable as Australia," Cordesman said.

Cordesman conceded that the more conventional part of the Iraq war is over, but notes the deadly resistance that U.S. and British troops are still confronting. He said nations can expect to fight what are becoming known as "asymmetric" wars in the new century -- wars against smaller, unconventional forces, often terrorists.

For this reason, he said, it is important that these enemies' leaders are killed or captured so they no longer serve as symbols of resistance.

"When we talk about asymmetric wars, where there is a high ideological content, where we are talking about threats in terms of irregular forces or terrorism or sudden ambushes of troops, basically you only have won when you are no longer under attack, when you no longer have a threat from that country or that force. And when you talk about Iraq or Afghanistan, [U.S. forces] obviously continue to fight there," Cordesman said.

Ted Galen Carpenter says that for allied forces in Iraq, the war certainly is not over but that its nature has shifted. Carpenter is the vice president for defense and foreign-policy studies at the Cato Institute, a private policy-research center in Washington.

"The U.S. style of warfare is pretty well over in the case of both Afghanistan and Iraq. But the war of occupation [in both countries] is not over, and that's the distinction," Carpenter said.

Carpenter told RFE/RL that the resistance in Iraq is reminiscent of the wars fought against European colonial powers in Africa and Asia during the past 50 or 60 years, such as the resistance to the French presence in Algeria and the Dutch presence in Indonesia.

According to Carpenter, the United States and Britain should work hard to arrange a quick departure from Iraq, rather than risk the bloody confrontations that characterized those occupations.

"What we're seeing is something very similar to the 20th-century national liberation or anti-imperial movements. If the U.S. wants to minimize its difficulties in Iraq, it ought to have a very clearly articulated strategy for getting out of Iraq as soon as possible and turning Iraq over to the Iraqi people. That means doing so, even if we might not be all that happy with the outcome," Carpenter said.

Leon Fuerth says it is important not to discount the possibility that the resistance to allied forces in Iraq is somehow centrally controlled. Fuerth served as national security adviser to U.S. Vice President Al Gore in the administration of President Bill Clinton.

Fuerth says there is no conclusive evidence that the attacks on U.S. and British troops are coordinated. But he told RFE/RL that there are signs suggestive of central command.

"The fact that [the attacks are] increasing from day to day, that [they] crisscross the country, that there have to be resources involved in getting it done, begins to create a strong suspicion that somewhere in the center, there is a force," Fuerth said.

He said even Bush and his top advisers appear to be entertaining that possibility, or at least the notion that Saddam Hussein managed to survive the war and may be hiding somewhere in Iraq.

"The [Bush] administration has now had to shade its views about what happened and is now acknowledging that -- in its view -- Saddam Hussein is almost certainly alive and may be in the country. And I think each day they come closer to saying that it is somehow an orchestrated assault on Americans for the purpose of producing casualties, which might be politically unsustainable over time," Fuerth said.

So far, Fuerth said, the American people have, for the most part, expressed no significant frustration at the continuing bloodshed in Iraq. But he said it is unclear how long this forbearance might last if the killing persists.