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Iraq: 'Ramadan Offensive' -- How The U.S. Found Itself Fighting A Guerrilla War (Part 2)

This week, U.S. armed forces in Iraq passed an unfortunate milestone. With the deaths of two soldiers in a guerrilla attack north of Baghdad on Wednesday, 117 U.S. troops have now been killed in hostile action since President George W. Bush declared an end to major combat on 1 May. In the more conventional war, which began in late March, 115 U.S. soldiers died. Yet, Bush continues to trumpet U.S. successes in Iraq while downplaying the intensity of the resistance. In the second of a two-part series on the so-called "Ramadan Offensive," RFE/RL speaks with analysts who believe the White House's tactics could turn victory in Iraq into defeat.

Washington, 31 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- During the past week, U.S. President George W. Bush has spoken dismissively of a series of guerrilla attacks in Iraq that some are calling the "Ramadan Offensive," likening it to the Tet Offensive against U.S. forces in Vietnam 35 years ago.

Bush said the recent assaults -- including a fatal rocket attack on Baghdad's Al-Rashid Hotel on 26 October and four suicide bombings in the capital that killed dozens of people on 27 October -- are merely signs of desperation by the resistance that the U.S.-led reconstruction of Iraq is going too well.

At a news conference on 28 October, Bush reinforced his thesis: "These terrorists are targeting the very success and freedom we're providing to the Iraqi people. Their desperate attacks on innocent civilians will not intimidate us, or the brave Iraqis and Afghans who are joining in their own defense and who are moving toward self-government."

"The New York Times" reported that Bush decided to hold the news conference only that very morning. It said Bush told his communications director that it was time to show the people of both the United States and Iraq that the attacks will not deter him from finishing the job that he began in the spring when the U.S. led an invasion of the country.

But what Bush had to say did not impress retired Colonel Kenneth Allard, who served in Europe as an intelligence officer and who supported Bush's decision to go to war in Iraq. Allard also teaches national security studies at Georgetown University in Washington.

Speaking with RFE/RL, Allard said Bush was far from convincing in his efforts to reassure either Americans or Iraqis. Rather, he said, the president dealt with the issues as ineptly as a struggling student. "Yesterday [28 October], George Bush, for all that I wish him well -- that was not an impressive performance. It reminded me of my graduate students on their oral comprehensives trying to pull out a pass," he said. "Look, [the Iraq war] is going to be tough. It's not as tough as Vietnam, but the president needs to level with the American people and say: 'Look, 100 casualties or 1,000, this is worth doing, and I'm not backing off. We're going to win this thing, no matter what.'"

Allard acknowledged that the United States and its coalition partners have achieved commendable success in opening schools and hospitals, recruiting indigenous police and other security forces, and creating an atmosphere for a vigorous free press.

But because of the escalating guerrilla war, Allard said, U.S. forces have failed to bring security to crucial areas, particularly to Baghdad and its environs, making residents fearful when they attend school or go about the other business that could eventually restore normality in the country.

According to Allard, the only way to fight this war effectively is with good intelligence, something that is sorely lacking. "The [U.S.] Army has now, based on its own internal reports, discovered that it has enormous problems with -- guess what? -- its own intelligence infrastructure in Iraq," he said. "That's extraordinarily significant because of the fact that that is how you win that kind of war -- with better intelligence. If you think you need it in the major war now just concluded, in a guerrilla war you need it even more intensively."

Allard said that every day that U.S. military intelligence lags, resistance fighters gain ground, not only by mounting attacks but by making the population more afraid to leave their homes and less confident in both the U.S. military presence and the civilian administration.

And if the daring and ferocity of this week's attacks are any sign, Iraq should prepare itself for continuing violence from the resistance, which Allard, like other observers, is calling the "Ramadan Offensive." The 27 October attacks -- which targeted four police stations and the Baghdad offices of the International Committee of the Red Cross -- coincided with the first day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Allard said he sees a parallel between Iraq and Vietnam -- not so much because of the nature of the war but in the way the Bush administration appears to be trying to make much of its own successes while downplaying the guerrilla resistance. "What's obvious to me is that a 'Ramadan Offensive' is going on, much like the Tet Offensive in Vietnam," he said. "We need to be every bit as ruthless in applying military force in all of its means, or else we're going to live to regret this -- because you cannot lose this one."

The Tet Offensive by the Viet Cong, which began in January 1968, ultimately was unsuccessful militarily, but the number of U.S. casualties it caused proved to be a political liability for U.S. President Lyndon Johnson.

Allard said the United States can make its Iraq policy work if it invests in Arab speakers and others who can enhance U.S. intelligence. Just as importantly, he said, Bush must be candid with the American people about the nature of the war. "Bush has got to, first of all, level with the American people on what it's going to cost: time, resources -- resources being not only blood but treasure. And the second thing is the fact that the military itself has got to -- has got to -- get its arms around, very quickly, these new challenges of fighting a guerrilla war," he said.

This view also is held by Anthony Cordesman, a former intelligence analyst with both the U.S. State and Defense departments. He now specializes in international affairs issues with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a policy research center in Washington.

Cordesman -- who also supported Bush's decision to go to war -- agrees that the war must be won, but said that Bush can lose it just as easily in the face of fierce guerrilla resistance, especially if he does not make the will of the American people part of his battle strategy.

"We may well be able to reverse this [recent offensive], but the fact is that we can also lose. And one of the key elements is [for the Bush administration] to be honest with the American people. We have far too many statements being made by U.S. officials which imply that we are far further along than we really are," Cordesman told RFE/RL.

Like Allard, Cordesman said Bush and his senior aides should remind Americans that rebuilding Iraq will take many years, and that they should accept casualties. He also said Bush should admit that the administration was not prepared for the guerrilla war that followed the more conventional combat that ousted Saddam Hussein.

"I think it is quite clear that the Department of Defense was totally unprepared for the mission it assumed for ideological reasons. And as a result, the United States emerged out of its victory as unprepared for peace, security, and conflict termination, for any aspect of nation building, as it was well-prepared to defeat Saddam's forces. In retrospect, we organized to win the war in ways which created a very high risk that we will lose the peace," Cordesman said.

Cordesman elaborated on his use of the word "ideological." He cited officials in the Defense Department who are known as "neo-conservatives," who tend to be from the right wing of Bush's Republican Party. They espouse privatization of many government social programs and generous spending for the military.

According to Cordesman, the neo-conservatives in the Defense Department persuaded Bush to allow them to handle Iraq reconstruction, a task that ordinarily would have been handled by the State Department. As it happened, the State Department had spent more than a year studying the reconstruction of Iraq and had predicted many of the problems that have come to pass.

Cordesman said he hopes future administrations, as well as those in the White House now, will learn a valuable lesson from this episode. "We simply can never again afford to have any ideological group seize control of the interagency process, isolate the U.S. military and other agencies, and lead to a situation where the peace has now cost more American lives than the war," he said.