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What's next? Bush faces new questions on Iraq, strength of coalition

Associated Press
Published November 3, 2004


WASHINGTON - It could be a tough next four years in Iraq for President Bush, depending in part on the outcome of a planned U.S. attack on the insurgents' stronghold at Fallujah. Will a renewed U.S. offensive break the back of the insurgency?

Hungary's announcement Wednesday that it won't keep its troops in Iraq beyond next March underscores another uncertainty: Whether international support for the war, military or otherwise, will grow or shrink.

The answers to those questions will go a long way in determining when the Bush administration might be able to substantially reduce the number of U.S. troops in Iraq - and foresee an end to its huge financial investment - without risking Iraq's collapse into civil war.

"This is a George Bush project, and it's going to stay that way," said Michael O'Hanlon, a military analyst at the Brookings Institution. He expects little new help from other nations, and thinks Bush will soon begin talking more openly about an Iraq exit strategy.

In his victory speech Wednesday, Bush mentioned bringing the troops home.

"We'll help the emerging democracies of Iraq and Afghanistan so they can grow in strength and defend their freedom, and then our service men and women will come home with the honor they have earned," the president said.

Bush said throughout the election campaign that if given a second term he intended to remain on the same course in Iraq, hoping to stabilize the country despite a U.S. death toll that already exceeds 1,100 and has averaged two American deaths every day since an interim Iraqi government was installed in late June.

The United States has about 142,000 troops in Iraq now, roughly the same as one year ago.

The Pentagon recently raised the possibility of reducing that number after Iraq holds its first elections in January, assuming the Pentagon can increase the ranks of U.S.-trained Iraqi troops.

A fresh contingent of U.S. forces will enter Iraq over the coming few months, replacing troops who are completing their one-year tours. In a reminder of the unexpected duration of this war and the strain it has placed on the military, the Army's 3rd Infantry Division, which fought the opening stages of the war in 2003, is going back for a second tour.

Getting within sight of an end to U.S. military involvement has been stalled by at least two problems Bush did not anticipate when he launched the March 2003 invasion of Iraq: A creative, shadowy and tenacious insurgency, and setbacks in building a reliable Iraqi security force.

Those two issues have important military dimensions. But they cannot be overcome by the use of force alone, says Army Maj. Gen. Barbara Fast, who was intelligence chief for the U.S. military command in Baghdad during an earlier phase of the war. She says more economic, political and information efforts are needed to complement the role of U.S. and coalition troops.

Fast and other senior officers have said the United States and its coalition partners must communicate more clearly to ordinary Iraqis that they must stand up to the insurgents, take responsibility for rebuilding their own country and realize the United States cannot do it for them.

"It's as much about perception as it is about (military) wins and losses on the ground," Fast told a recent Army conference.

In a similar vein, O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution said: "Either one - Bush or Kerry - despite all this campaign talk about staying the course would have had to recognize pretty soon that our presence in Iraq is part of the problem. It's necessary, but it's also part of the problem. Therefore a strategy to get out is actually useful, and it's not a sign of weakness."

Meanwhile, the administration has received far fewer contributions of troops and other forms of assistance than it wanted from European allies like France and Germany that opposed the invasion, and it is unlikely to do much better in the future, given the latest developments.

Hungary on Wednesday set a firm limit of getting its 300 troops out of Iraq by March 31. The interim Iraqi government had asked Hungary a few weeks ago to keep its troops there for about another year.

German Interior Minister Otto Schily, meanwhile, suggested Wednesday that past friction might be put aside. "We had differences over Iraq but we're not looking back now - we're looking to the future," he said.

However, German officials made clear they still would send no troops to Iraq.