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Iraq: Mounting U.S. Casualties Underscore Security Dilemma

Yesterday's death of the 32nd U.S. soldier in postwar combat in Iraq, and Washington's announcement that it will not rotate most of a key army division home in September as planned, underscore the difficult security situation in Iraq. RFE/RL looks at why Washington is having trouble quashing resistance to its authority in Iraq and how that complicates attempts to restore stability to the country.

Prague, 15 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- As the number of U.S. troops killed by hostile fire steadily grows, Washington is becoming increasingly preoccupied with the poor security situation in Iraq and what it means for efforts to stabilize the country.

The toll now stands at 32 U.S. soldiers killed since U.S. President George W. Bush declared major combat over in Iraq on 1 May. Most of the soldiers' deaths have occurred in attacks on patrols and convoys by unidentified men firing rocket-propelled grenades.

Bush and other top officials in Washington had until recently stated that security in Iraq was improving. But as the casualties mount, the president publicly acknowledged for the first time this month that the situation is troubling.

Bush told reporters while on tour in Africa last week: "There's no question we've got a security issue in Iraq.... We're going to have to deal with it person-by-person. We're going to have to remain tough."

U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld warned over the weekend that the number of attacks on U.S. forces could increase this month, which coincides with anniversaries tied to former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and his Ba'ath Party.

In another first, Rumsfeld also said the rash of recent attacks on soldiers could be part of a coordinated anti-U.S. resistance. The top U.S. defense official told the American ABC television network: "It's pretty clear that in a city or an area, there is coordination. We don't have any good evidence that it's nationwide or even a large region, but it's possible."

The secretary of defense has sought to stress in recent press conferences that anti-U.S. agents are not able to operate easily in Iraq, where some 150,000 U.S. troops are deployed.

"There seems to be a widely held impression that the [Ba'athist] regime loyalists are operating freely throughout the country, attacking coalition forces at will. That is clearly not the case. Large portions of Iraq are stable," Rumsfeld said.

U.S. officials have so far said there are no plans to increase the number of U.S. troops in Iraq, although Rumsfeld has said more will be sent if they're needed. But this week -- in apparent response to the growing number of attacks -- Washington did decide to postpone the scheduled rotation home of some 10,000 soldiers from one of its most experienced units in Iraq -- the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division. The division, many of whose soldiers have been in the region since September, was the first to enter Baghdad during the war and has since shouldered much of the burden of patrolling the city and its environs.

The order to extend the deployment of two of the three brigades of the 3rd Infantry Division reversed last week's statement by the division's commander, Major General Buford Blount. Blount had said his troops would be going back to the U.S. during July and August. No new departure date has been announced. A third brigade, which had already started its rotation, is continuing its return home uninterrupted.

Analysts say the mounting postwar combat toll and the decision to leave some of the U.S. Army's most experienced troops in place underline the increasing urgency of the security problem in Iraq.

Julian Lindley-French is director of European security policy at the Geneva Center for Security Policy in Switzerland. He told RFE/RL the attacks appear to be carried out largely by Hussein loyalists, some of whom may have planned for an insurgency even before the end of the war.

"There was a kind of strategy of the Saddam Hussein regime which was, when it became obvious defeat was simply a question of time, to let the coalition roll over them and leave elements such as the fedayeen [an elite force sworn to fight to the death for Hussein] in regionally organized cells who would progressively pick off American and British forces. Around Baghdad, north up to Tikrit, [the attacks are] going to continue, sadly, and I think this was only to be expected," Lindley-French said.

In addition to the 32 U.S. troops, six British soldiers have been killed by hostile fire in Iraq since 1 May.

Lindley-French also said no one should be surprised that a combined force of 200,000 U.S. and British soldiers in the middle of an Arab country draws hostility, not just from Hussein loyalists but from anti-Western groups in general.

"I've always believed that if you put a couple of hundred thousand American and British [soldiers] in the middle of the Arab world, let's face it, it is not going to be easy. There are large segments of the community who simply do not like the United States and the U.K., for a range of reasons," he said.

The analyst said that as the U.S. confronts the nearly daily death of one of its soldiers, Washington is for the first time having to debate whether Americans are ready to pay such a price for restoring stability to Iraq. He said that both the U.S. political leadership and its military largely avoided debates over nation building and peacekeeping in Iraq before the war, but now must deal with exactly those challenges.

"The U.S. political elite around the Bush administration doesn't like nation building. The U.S. military doesn't like peacekeeping. And because of that, both sides avoided the harsh realities of such kinds of victory, which is that one is left with a need to stay on the ground doing constabulary peacekeeping operations. I think this is a dawning reality in Washington that if the political objectives of the operation are to be achieved, then the military presence has to be there for far longer and in a far more engaged manner than was planned for," Lindley-French said.

A poll last week of more than 1,000 Americans found that more than half of them consider the level of U.S. casualties in Iraq unacceptable. The random survey, conducted by ABC News and "The Washington Post," also found that only 57 percent said the war was worth fighting, compared to 70 percent at the end of April, shortly after Hussein's regime was toppled.

U.S. General Tommy Franks, who this month stepped down as head of the U.S. Central Command, estimated last week that U.S. troops will have to remain in Iraq for up to four years. The Bush administration has vowed U.S. forces will stay as long as necessary to foster the development of a more democratic system and restore Iraq to self-rule.