Despite a two-week public-relations offensive designed to persuade the world and the USA public that it knows what it is doing in Iraq, the Bush administration appears increasingly at sea. That was made clear by a number of developments this week, which were capped Friday by the killings of four more USA soldiers in two separate incidents, bringing the number of USA troops killed, since President George W. Bush in May declared the end of major hostilities in Iraq, to a hundred and one.
Passing the particularly disturbing benchmark number of a hundred led the television news Friday night, dashing administration hopes that the week would be remembered more for the unanimous United Nations Security Council approval Thursday of a new resolution that officials here depicted as international endorsement of the USA-led occupation. But even that achievement proved anticlimactic, as countries voting for the measure, including France, Russia, Germany and even Pakistan, made clear that they were not yet ready to contribute troops to Iraq and remained doubtful that Washington’s strategy for restoring security to the country - if it actually had one - was working.
While the administration made clear that the resolution would not necessarily provide troops to take the place of the 130,000 USA soldiers in Iraq, Pakistan’s announcement that it would not do so came as a particular blow. On the other hand, that Washington is still negotiating with its handpicked Iraqi Governing Council over the deployment of up to 10,000 troops promised by Turkey suggests that Pentagon planners still are not very clear on what use foreign troops could serve in Iraq anyway.
The Governing Council has made it increasingly clear since the Turkish parliament approved the deployment - after Washington signed off on an eight-billion-dollar loan and promised to disarm Turkish rebels based in Kurdistan - almost two weeks ago that Turkish troops are simply not welcome, not in Kurdistan, nor in the rest of the country.
The Council, from which the ardently pro-USA Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani threatened to resign if the Turkish deployment proceeds, has by all accounts become increasingly restive and resentful, particularly of the often high-handed behaviour of Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) chief Jerry Bremer, who has demanded that the Governing Council formally invite the Turks in.
The growing friction between Bremer and the Governing Council has become a source of embarrassment. So have the ongoing frictions here between the Pentagon on the one side and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and the State Department on the other. The latest incident began after Rice briefed selected media on the creation of the ‘Iraq Stabilisation Group’ (ISG), a new mechanism overseen by her to which Bremer and the CPA are to report.
Seeing in the move an implicit but high-profile criticism of the way the Pentagon had handled the CPA, if not an outright power grab, Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld reacted with thinly veiled irritation, which lasted the best part of a week and was capped by a contemptuous reference to those ‘’little committees of the NSC (National Security Council)’’.
Several days later, Rumsfeld’s office struck back with the announcement that it will soon set up its own Project Management Office (PMO) in Baghdad that will take over the awarding of contracts for reconstruction projects from the USA Agency for International Development (USAID), which is run out of the State Department. The sequence of events left many observers scratching their heads, uncertain as to what precisely will be the ISG’s mandate. ‘’We don’t know what, if anything, has changed’’, noted one Congressional aide. ‘’Nobody has explained any of this to us in ways that make sense.’’
The impression of disarray was further compounded by the revolt staged by a significant number of Republican senators Thursday against the administration’s demands that Congress provide 20 billion dollars in grants for Iraqi reconstruction as part of an 87-billion-dollar appropriations bill to fund USA operations in the occupied nation through next year.
In a 51-47 vote, the Senate approved a provision that would make one-half of the reconstruction aid a loan, thus adding to Iraq’s accumulated foreign debt estimated at between 150 billion and 200 billion dollars. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney pulled out all the stops in lobbying for the original plan, but eight Republicans deserted the president and joined 42 Democrats to thwart Bush in what the ‘Los Angeles Times’ described as ‘’the latest sign of eroding public and political support for Bush’s Iraq policy’’.
The loan provision might still be stripped from the bill when members of the House of Representatives - which rejected a similar provision by a 200-226 vote Thursday - and the Senate meet to hammer out a final version, but the unexpected outcome in the upper chamber suggests that Republican discipline is breaking down over Iraq.
Having seen their hopes for a post-Saddam renewal of Iraq disintegrate amidst growing USA oppression, many Sh’ias are drawn to the strident anti-occupation position of Muqtada al-Sadr
The most serious signs of trouble for the administration this week were probably in Iraq itself, especially in the Shia-dominated southern part of the country which, until now, has been relatively quiet compared to the central ‘’Sunni Triangle’’ region where insurgents have caused the vast majority of USA casualties since May 1.
Three of the four soldiers killed Friday were involved in a shoot-out with unknown assailants in the holy Shia city of Karbala. It was by far the worst incident in a series over the past month that reportedly involves a major power struggle between at least two key armed Shia factions. Last week, two other USA soldiers were killed in what the CPA described as an ambush in Sadr City, a Shia-dominated part of Baghdad in which the factional struggle has also increased. That USA troops might now be targeted by one of the factions - associated most closely with Muqtada al-Sadr, who has called for the establishment of an independent government - is particularly disturbing to Iraq specialists here.
While Sunnis, who were generally favoured under British colonial and Ba’ath Party rule, constitute about 20 percent of Iraq’s population, Shias are thought to make up as much as 65 percent. Any fighting or breakdown in order within the Shias or between Shias and occupation forces would make it vastly more difficult to restore security to the country. It would almost certainly pose new questions as well about what USA troops are doing there, a question that is apparently being raised with increasing frequency and intensity by soldiers themselves.
A survey based on almost 2,000 questionnaires distributed by the Pentagon-funded ‘Stars and Stripes’ newspaper in August found that one-half of those questioned described their unit’s morale as low, their training irrelevant or inadequate, and their re-enlistment plans non-existent. The troops also complained about the tours provided by the Pentagon to visiting dignitaries, including top military officers, congressmen and senators. They said visitors were generally shown only hand-picked troops who could be relied on to show enthusiasm for their mission and who did not represent the views of most troops.