A Most Dangerous Moment

Can the U.S. restore order -- and engineer a credible transition to Iraqi sovereignty?

It's high noon in Iraq. The U.S. campaign to spread the seeds of democracy through the Middle East is in serious danger. The recent spate of cease-fires and negotiations barely diminishes the risk that the American-led coalition could once again be plunged into the sort of two-front battle that in early April roiled Iraq in the bloodiest two weeks of fighting since the war began just over a year ago.

Occupation forces find themselves in a tense standoff, not only with rebellious Sunni Baathists and foreign jihadists but also with militants from Iraq's Shiite majority -- the supposed prime beneficiaries of U.S. liberation. Hundreds of Iraqi casualties and images of a mosque under fire during the battle for Fallujah are alienating even moderate Iraqis, who are incensed that U.S. forces are humiliating them while failing to protect them. And leaders such as radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, jockeying for power in a new government slated to take office on June 30, are promoting anti-American sentiment. "Iraq is looking more and more out of control," frets billionaire Saudi investor Prince Alwaleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz Alsaud. "That's dangerous for the whole region."

Iraqi insurgents are intent on undermining foreign forces. Their latest tactic: kidnapping and murdering foreigners in hopes of pressuring U.S. allies to pull out their soldiers and reconstruction workers. The ploy is having an impact: On Apr. 13, Germany and Japan warned their citizens to leave Iraq, and Moscow is evacuating Russian nationals. If insurgents delay reconstruction, Iraqis will see little benefit from Saddam Hussein's ouster -- and resentment against the U.S. could intensify. With President George W. Bush's poll numbers sinking, there's growing doubt -- and a host of questions -- about his ability to manage the war and transfer power to a legitimate Iraqi government.

Can the U.S. stabilize Iraq and pick up the pieces of the rebuilding drive?

That's the question of the hour. A year after Baghdad fell, the bloody events of early April have made it clear that the U.S. hold on Iraq remains weak. Staying on track will require two things: more troops to maintain security, supplemented by a craftier political strategy.

How many more troops will the U.S.-led coalition need to restore security?

At his Apr. 13 news conference, Bush said he would send the roughly 10,000 additional soldiers commanders requested to bolster the 150,000 coalition troops on the ground. But analysts such as RAND Corp. peacekeeping expert and former State Dept. special envoy James Dobbins say as many as 400,000 troops are needed to match the peacekeeping clout used in other volatile countries. The 250,000 Iraqis the U.S. hopes to have in uniform will help, but the security services' recent refusal to fight fellow Iraqis shows they aren't up to the task -- and won't be for at least a year.

Does the U.S. have the manpower on hand to send the number of troops needed?

In theory, yes; in practice, no. The Army, for example, already is deploying 22 of 33 active brigades, with 4,000 to 5,000 soldiers in each. Of those, 16 brigades are already in Iraq. Trouble is, today's family- and career-oriented volunteer force is vastly different from, say, the draftees of Vietnam. Studies show the military can't keep troops on active deployment more than six months out of every two years without damaging recruitment and retention. By that standard, the force already is stressed. Troops could be pulled from around the globe for a short operation, like Desert Storm, but not for the protracted operation now needed in Iraq. Nor is expanding the military the solution: It would take two years to train just six brigades.

To what extent are other nations, particularly in Europe, willing to step in?

A major influx of foreign forces is unlikely. South Korea, which depends on American goodwill to resolve the North Korean nuclear crisis, remains committed to sending an additional 3,000 soldiers -- despite public opposition. And Poland and Italy will keep their contingents in place. But in other European capitals, "there is no desire to send troops" -- even if the U.N. took a bigger role, says an aide to European Commission President Romano Prodi. Moreover, even if the political will existed, the troops don't. NATO countries could muster at most 10,000 soldiers immediately, according to Ivo H. Daalder, a security expert at the Brookings Institution.

Even so, the rift between the U.S. and such countries as France and Germany over Iraq could begin to close as European policymakers become increasingly concerned about the impact of a potential U.S. failure in Iraq. "Europe needs to find, as soon as possible, the means to help Washington," writes Denis Jeambar, editor-in-chief of L'Express, the mainstream French newsweekly.

What should the Coalition Provisional Authority be doing to lend more credibility to new Iraqi leaders?

The CPA must recognize which Iraqis on the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council represent real constituencies and can command respect. For the most part, that's going to be leaders who lived through Saddam Hussein's brutal reign -- not the exiles who courted the Bush Administration. Those who were initially excluded from the Governing Council could be promised roles in the new government in exchange for cooperation in opposing radicals, who threaten to turn the Shiite majority against the reform effort.

Can the U.N. help?

Absolutely. U.N. Special Adviser Lakhdar Brahimi is playing a critical role in helping form a new Iraqi Interim Government (IIG). The U.N. is reluctant to appear to support the occupation. But Washington hopes that U.N. Ambassador John D. Negroponte -- who is likely to be named the first ambassador to Iraq after power is handed back -- can help smooth the way for a U.N. resolution that would boost the new Iraqi government's legitimacy. The U.N. already is helping to lay the groundwork for the election expected in January, 2005, and is likely to oversee it.

But the tenuous security situation in Iraq continues to limit the U.N.'s role. Brahimi said on Apr. 14 that the election schedule depended on stopping the outbursts of fighting. And Secretary-General Kofi A. Annan remains wary of sending in a reconstruction mission after the August truck bombing of the U.N.'s Baghdad headquarters, which killed 24 people, including envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello. "For the foreseeable future, insecurity is going to be a major constraint for us," Annan said on Apr. 13. "I cannot say right now that I'm going to be sending in a large U.N. team." Nor will there be blue helmets: The U.S. doesn't want the U.N. to play a military role.

So what will the turnover look like?

On Apr. 14, Brahimi called for replacing the current Governing Council on June 30 with a "consultative assembly" and a caretaker government led by a prime minister, a president, and two vice-presidents. This new regime would take over domestic functions and have more authority than the Governing Council. Iraqis would adopt legislation on their own, without the U.S. veto in place now.

Who will hold power after June 30?

That's still up for grabs. Some, if not all, of the members of the Governing Council could be in the caretaker government. The survivors are likely to be those who have clout with local groups -- and who use that constructively to help tamp down the insurgencies in Fallujah and elsewhere. One pol to watch: Ibrahim Jaafari, a pragmatic Islamic fundamentalist and major figure in the Daawa Islamic Party. According to Amatzia Baram, an Iraq expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace, polls show that Jaafari, a member of the Governing Council, is the most popular politician in Iraq today. The U.S. needs to pay more attention to leaders with such wide appeal.

How important a role will the leading Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Husaini Sistani, play in the new government?

He's sure to be a behind-the-scenes power. Sistani already has flexed his muscles by nixing a U.S. proposal to use caucuses to pick the transitional government. And his son is helping to cool down the impetuous Sadr, whose followers seized the holy city of Najaf in early April. While Sistani's objectives remain hard to decipher, unlike Sadr, he doesn't feel clerics should assume secular governing duties. Sistani says he agrees with Sadr that the U.S. occupiers should leave -- but he doesn't believe in using force.

Could the turmoil force a delay in the June 30 handover?

Not likely. Iraqis' expectations are so high that any delay in Washington's promise would bring more unrest. And there's little to gain from delay. "Iraqis do not support an indefinite occupation -- and neither does America," the President said at his news conference.

What's to prevent the the country from sliding into civil war after the handoff, as rival political factions vie for power?

The risk of a meltdown exists. But Uncle Sam's presence will continue to loom large. The U.S. will be responsible for security for some time, which should dampen political violence. The $18 billion in aid that the U.S. plans to pour into Iraq will prop up the economy and could help pacify various factions. An expanded U.S. embassy will work on an array of programs, from health care to setting up a judiciary. And U.N. involvement in the political process should add legitimacy.

Has the Bush Administration learned anything from its star-crossed Iraq intervention?

As the President showed at his news conference, he and his team don't publicly admit errors. But clearly the White House is improvising. It has zigzagged repeatedly in its strategy and tactics. Rather than follow its initial plan to leave intact Iraq's military and civilian bureaucracies while ridding them of Saddam's Baath Party influence, the U.S. dismembered those institutions -- creating widespread unemployment and animosity. The U.S. military was supposed to have 30,000 troops on the ground by now but has four or five times that number. Reliance on the U.N. once was anathema for Bush. Now it appears to be a key to his strategy.

The White House insists that despite the setbacks, U.S. policy in Iraq is on track. "We'll stay the course," Bush repeated several times at his news conference. The President says he feels "deep in my soul" that what the U.S. is doing in Iraq is right, and says he remains convinced that the outcome is not in doubt. Still, the Bush crew has clearly been chastened. Nation-building anywhere, let alone in the volatile Middle East, is always a Herculean task. Says peacekeeping veteran Dobbins: "We have done it quickly, and we have done it well. But we have never done it quickly and well." That's a lesson the Bush Administration is now painfully learning.

By Stan Crock in Washington, with John Rossant in Paris, David Fairlamb in Frankfurt, Moon Ihlwan in Seoul, and bureau reports

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