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No end in sight for U.S. in Iraq

By WES ALLISON, Times Staff Writer
Published March 21, 2004

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When Patrick Clawson, foreign policy wonk, visited Baghdad in the fall, the traffic seemed as tangled as the politics. The stoplights were dead, intersections were noisy logjams, and most of the cops assigned to direct traffic had simply given up.

When Clawson returned last month, the number of cars on Baghdad streets had nearly doubled, but for the most part, traffic was moving. Freshly uniformed Iraqi police directed traffic with hand signals and red and green placards. Most striking, drivers seemed to heed them.

"It's true, the streetlights aren't working, but hey - delivery of services like that makes a big difference," he said.

For Clawson, deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, it was a small but important symbol of progress in Iraq, an incremental step in the march from chaos to order.

But one year after the invasion of Iraq, he and other experts also cautioned that such improvements are only signs that stability might be possible in Iraq - not that it's guaranteed or will come any time soon.

Despite optimistic predictions from the Bush administration about an emerging democracy and plans to transfer sovereignty to an Iraqi government this summer, experts in foreign policy say Americans should prepare for many more years of deadly roadside bombings and U.S. and civilian casualties. Americans should also be prepared to pay billions per year for Iraq's reconstruction.

As the Bush administration and the military insist, good things are happening. Some areas of the country, especially in the south, are fairly stable, with functioning electricity and water, and elected local governments.

But much of Iraq is still teetering on chaos, with high unemployment, an unreliable electric grid and daily attacks on U.S. soldiers and the Iraqis helping them. In fact, the biggest fear among many policy experts and congressional leaders - Democrats and Republicans alike - is that public disdain for the growing human and financial cost during an election year will prompt the Bush administration to bring troops back prematurely and cast Iraq into civil war.

"I think the public is going to have to understand that progress is going to be slow and hard. If we try to rush it, we could ruin the whole thing," Clawson said.

Clawson, who considers himself an optimist about America's prospects in Iraq, added, "I'm describing a situation in which there will be continuing violence for years in Iraq. For years in Iraq."

The United States has 130,000 troops there now, with plans to drop the number to about 105,000 by next year. The Bush administration has declined to predict what will happen after that, and officials have refused to predict how long the United States will have to rotate thousands of troops into Iraq. But congressional leaders and foreign policy experts say they expect the U.S. military contingent to decrease gradually over several years.

One popular scenario puts U.S. troops at roughly 50,000 by 2006, 25,000 by 2007, 10,000 by 2008 and about 5,000 troops for five years after that.

The U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority is scheduled to hand political control to the Iraqi Governing Council on June 30, and the council recently inked a new constitution. Elections for a national assembly are planned by Jan. 31, 2005.

President Bush has pledged to keep U.S. troops in Iraq until the country is stable, and some critics worry that achieving those milestones would falsely allow Bush to declare that the goal had been met. But even if free and fair elections are held in January, Iraq probably will be far from secure and incapable of defending itself.

Because Iraq is building a new army and sits in a volatile part of the world, next to its historical enemy, Iran, the United States may be obligated to provide security for years more, much as it has done for Germany and Japan since World War II, experts said.

When U.S. Rep. John Spratt, D-S.C., a ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, visited Iraq last fall, a key member of the Governing Council told him the United States should maintain two or three Army divisions - 40,000 to 60,000 troops - in Iraq for the foreseeable future.

"I said, "That's a lot of troops,' " Spratt recalled. "He said, "Well, we need at least that many troops so we will feel secure from external enemies, and at the same time you will have enough to help us maintain internal security, but not so many that you will be so omnipresent as an occupying army.' "

Anthony H. Cordesman, a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, recently completed an exhaustive study of conditions in Iraq, and he found some good news: Nearly $59-billion in U.S. aid had been committed, and $22.7-million has been delivered.

Iraqi security forces, including police and border agents, have swelled from 162,000 in December to more than 200,000 today, well on the way to the U.S. goal of 227,000.

But progress remained elusive in other categories. Aside from constant attacks by insurgents and foreign Islamic terrorists - seven people were killed Wednesday in a car bombing outside a Baghdad hotel - large pieces of a functioning infrastructure remain missing:

The unemployment rate is a whopping 50 to 60 percent, and most new jobs are make-work jobs created by the provisional authority.

Electricity is uneven and inadequate in most places, with just over half the needed 6,000 megawatts produced every day. The shortage of electricity is hampering industry and causing shortages of oil products, including gasoline and cooking fuels, he found.

Clawson, meanwhile, said the bureaucratic and technocratic classes are in shambles and that Hussein "made people so fearful and lacking in experience on how to solve problems and compromise, the human infrastructure is not working well."

Even in communities such as Mosul, which has an elected local government and good relations with U.S. troops, insurgents attack Iraqi police officers and U.S. soldiers daily.

Early last week, four U.S. missionaries were killed in an ambush there. Because of safety concerns, large nongovernmental agencies have been reluctant to set up shop in Iraq.

James F. Dobbins, director of the Center for International Security and Defense Policy at the Rand Corp., said the security risks have not been adequately defined. Although policymakers can say how many American troops are killed any given week, there's no real system for counting slain Iraqis or determining whether Iraqis are safer.

If the average Iraqi is "safer, he's more likely to collaborate," Dobbins said. "If not, then he'll probably remain uncommitted and allow extremists to circulate within the society."

* * *

When Clawson, Dobbins and foreign policy scholars fish about for what to hope for in Iraq, many recall southern Europe and the morass of ethnic and religious violence that once defined Bosnia.

In Bosnia, a smaller country than Iraq, America was just one of many nations that sent significant numbers of soldiers, not the main player. In Bosnia, U.S. troops are still helping keep the peace, nearly a decade after they arrived.

After sending 19,000 troops to Bosnia in 1996, the United States has cut its contingent by about half each year since then. The number has dwindled to about 2,500 National Guard troops, and the Army expects to be virtually out of Bosnia by next year, government officials said.

In Kosovo, another Balkan hot spot where NATO intervened in 1999, the United States still has about 2,000 troops.

How quickly the United States can scale back its mission in Iraq also depends on how much outside help it gets. So far, the Bush administration has been largely unsuccessful in drawing that help.

A recent report by the Council on Foreign Relations notes that only about 25,000 troops in Iraq are not American, and about half of those are British.

Last week, after a terrorist attack in Madrid killed 202, Spain announced it will pull its troops from Iraq in the absence of a U.N. mandate.

"We must reach out to the world by showing it is clearly in the interest of the free world to stabilize Iraq," said U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. "That's how we can draw down our troops, by having other nations participate in the police force."

David Birenbaum, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said expanding the international participation also would make a long-term commitment easier for Bush or his successor to sell to the American people.

"Failing to internationalize the peace has meant that the United States itself is responsible for everything that happens in Iraq, and becomes . . . the sole target," Birenbaum said.

"And that creates a big problem for a president who is committed to making something of Iraq and doesn't want to see an endless string of body bags."

* * *

Congressional Democrats and some Republicans have criticized the Bush administration for being vague about how long or at what levels the United States must remain in Iraq and how much it's likely to cost.

In the fiscal 2005 budget he recently submitted to Congress, the president did not include funding for the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, which Nelson estimated at $60-billion. Last year, Congress approved $87-billion for reconstruction.

The administration failed to articulate the costs of occupation and reconstruction before the invasion, "but if they had, they might not have gotten support for the war," Dobbins said.

"On the other hand, to be fair to the administration, the administration itself did not recognize the dimensions of those costs and went into Iraq with a set of unrealistic expectations."

This month, a Council on Foreign Relations report by a task force of foreign policy scholars, former military leaders and former government officials from Democratic and Republican administrations urged bipartisan commitment to Iraq.

The task force's report also warned that the June 30 transfer of sovereignty "is likely to create the perception among many Americans and U.S. political leaders that the United States has turned the corner in Iraq," when in truth it has not.

The report noted significant progress, but asked Congress, Bush and U.S. Sen. John Kerry, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, to reaffirm that they are "prepared to sustain a multibillion-dollar commitment to Iraq for the the next several years."

It also asked Bush to reconsider plans to reduce the number of troops based in some Iraqi cities.

"If we succeed, we would be there quite some time," said Dobbins, who served on the task force that drafted the report. "If we fail, we could leave real soon."

[Last modified March 21, 2004, 01:35:34]

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