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Iraq: Continuing Violence Complicating Progress Toward New Government

Despite the end of major military combat nine weeks ago, U.S. and British troops continue to die in Iraq. Are the hostilities the result of systematic resistance by Saddam Hussein's loyalists? What does the violence mean for the prospects of establishing a modern democracy in Iraq?

Washington, 8 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Twenty-nine U.S. soldiers and six of their British colleagues have been killed in hostile action in Iraq since 1 May, when U.S. President George W. Bush declared an end to what he called "major combat operations" in the war that deposed Saddam Hussein.

The Bush administration says such violence is not entirely unexpected in a country where many people have long regarded the United States with hatred, and where there is easy access to weapons. But U.S. officials stress that they do not believe the attacks are part of a coordinated or sustainable resistance movement.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld described the situation during a 30 June Pentagon briefing: "The remnants of the Ba'ath regime and the fedayeen death squads faded into the population and have reverted to a terrorist network. We are dealing with those remnants in a forceful fashion, just as we have had to deal with the remnants of al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan."

He has also suggested some attacks may be the work of Iranian-backed Iraqi Shi'a who had opposed Hussein, as well as what he called "criminals" and "foreign terrorists."

But there is growing concern in some circles in Washington that the resistance may be coordinated, and that the U.S. government must take stronger measures to counter it. Some members of Congress say the Defense Department should bolster the 150,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.

The administration says it expects U.S. allies to contribute a combined stabilization force of about 30,000 within the next six months, but it is unclear whether that figure will be met, especially if the fighting persists.

The world -- particularly the American people -- should not be surprised by such resistance, according to Anthony Cordesman, a former intelligence analyst for both the U.S. State and Defense departments who has written widely on military security issues.

Cordesman tells RFE/RL that in the current climate, people should expect military campaigns not to end tidily, especially those involving large armies facing smaller, less sophisticated forces. Instead, he says, they should understand that wars today are likely to shift from heavy fighting to the kind of violence that is occurring now in Iraq.

"These are just realities of the kind of warfare that we are likely to face in much of the 21st century," Cordesman said. "And it doesn't mean that military victories aren't important. It just means they're not definitive. And it also means that you have to destroy the symbols and the leaders who can carry on these postwar struggles."

Cordesman says the days are gone when one government surrenders to another after losing a war. According to the current practice of warfare, he says, soldiers often abandon their uniforms after a lost war, and civilians join them to continue the fighting. He adds that these fighters are no less lethal because they are not formally part of an army, and therefore must be dealt with as if they are.

"Now certainly it would be nice if you could have a tidy war in which you got rid of the leaders, as well as the enemy military forces, but it isn't going to happen," he says. "When you have [civilians] who are being used and manipulated to kill troops, it doesn't matter whether they're wearing uniforms or not. In fact, this is specifically recognized in the Geneva Convention that these people are legitimate targets."

As a result, Cordesman says, it is essential that Hussein be killed or captured, or that the United States establish proof of his death if he is dead already. If he is alive, Hussein could encourage or even direct resistance to U.S. troops. And as long as his fate is unknown, he says, Iraqis will cling to the hope -- or, in many cases, the fear -- that he will return to power.

Indeed, the concern over the building violence in Iraq was heightened recently when the Arabic-language satellite television network Al-Jazeera broadcast a tape recording of what is purported to be the voice of Hussein. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency says the voice on the tape is probably Hussein's but that it can't be totally sure. On the tape, the voice praises the attacks on allied forces and claims credit for coordinating the resistance.

Indeed, some observers say it appears the violence is not being carried out by independent resistance cells. One is Leon Fuerth, who served as national security adviser to U.S. Vice President Al Gore in the administration of Bush's predecessor, President Bill Clinton.

Fuerth says it is difficult to imagine that the resistance in Iraq is made up of independent groups because it is unlikely that any one cluster of forces would think it could drive the Americans and British out of the country on its own.

According to Fuerth, this seemingly coordinated resistance appears to be thwarting a very important U.S. goal -- persuading the Iraqi people to cooperate with the top U.S. civilian administrator in Iraq, Paul Bremer, in setting up a new government based on democratic principles.

"Let's say for the sake of argument that there is some kind of central direction in [the Iraqi resistance]. Then almost certainly that central direction is conscious of the objective of sapping American political will, and, of course, on a daily basis undermining the readiness of people in Iraq to fully cooperate with us," he says.

Fuerth says this resistance -- along with the steadily rising number of U.S. and British casualties -- was something U.S. war planners evidently considered very little before the war, if they considered it at all.

This lack of foresight could rebound negatively against the Bush administration, Fuerth says, just as the mounting U.S. losses in the Vietnam War rebounded against U.S. presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon in the 1960s and 1970s.

In particular, Fuerth says, the most outspoken supporters of the war blundered when they predicted that postwar Iraq would be far more peaceful than it is today. Regarding what the administration said to the American public, he says, reading it one way, "they didn't promise us a rose garden." But read another way, "especially if you read what was written by those people who were out there preparing the way for this war -- the real advocates of the war in public -- [they said] this was going to be a pushover, and democracy would be easy to install, and [the United States] would be out of Iraq quickly."

As long as Hussein's fate is unknown, Fuerth says, there will be concerns among Iraqis that he may eventually return to power. This complicates the U.S. effort to help Iraqis establish their own government. And that means President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair must struggle to legitimize the war on other grounds.

Fuerth says because the UN Security Council did not authorize the war in Iraq, the United States and Britain must do more than simply exert their considerable military power there.

Instead, Fuerth says, the U.S.-led administration in Iraq has to work hard to ensure the Iraqis are given an opportunity to choose their own government, and do so quickly.

"The only way you can get legitimacy out of a situation like that is if you can demonstrate that you really are bringing in something much better for the people themselves, and also that you really are moving toward establishing legitimate self-government. But it's not clear how much headway we're making in establishing better conditions," Fuerth says.

Toward that end, a newly elected city council in the city of Al-Najaf conducted its first meeting yesterday. And Baghdad's new city council also held its inaugural meeting yesterday. Bremer described the meeting as the most important event since the ouster of Hussein's regime.