Turning Point

The United States’ campaign in Iraq has reached a pivotal moment.

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Paul Bremer’s hasty summons to Washington for an emergency meeting this week was a clear sign that the White House is operating in crisis mode. The impression of barely concealed panic was reinforced by the outcome of that lightning conference: a plan, as yet hazy, for quickly transferring more power to Iraqis — a concept, remember, that the United States lately derided as … French.

Bush told Bremer get moving with the transfer. “We want the Iraqis to be more involved in the governance of their country,” the president said.

Bremer’s visit came as a leaked CIA report made the Washington rounds; its basic message: Be Very Afraid. The classified field assessment (which Bremer is said to have explicitly endorsed) noted a rising number of Iraqis, now in the tens of thousands, siding with the resistance, a development that the U.S., on current trends, will be hard pressed to reverse. The estimates, by the way, differ sharply from what the Pentagon has been telling the White House.

An anonymous intelligence source in Washington told London’s Guardian that the report doesn’t bode well for the occupation forces.

“It says we are going to lose the situation unless there is a rapid and dramatic change of course…. There are thousands in the resistance — not just a core of Ba’athists. They are in the thousands, and growing every day. Not all those people are actually firing, but providing support, shelter and all that.”

This week also brought us Operation Iron Hammer, under which
the occupation forces switched from smaller to larger military operations, including the dropping of 500-pound bombs. The CIA report argues that such actions are actually serving to alienate Iraqis.

Bremer painted a slightly brighter picture of Iraq while in Washington. When asked by reporters to describe the sentiment of the Iraqi public, Bremer explained that public opinion is not black and white. “I think the situation with the Iraqi public is, frankly, not easy to quantify,” he said.

But nor is it hard to mistake. Accordingly, Bremer flew back to Baghdad with a number of reform proposals from the White House, including expanding, transforming, or even replacing the Iraqi interim governing council with a full provisional government with an interim constitution. Plans for an election are expected to be expedited, and a new government might be in place by early next summer. The new proposals resembles what the Europeans have been going on about for quite some time and differ drastically from previous U.S. statements.

While many commentators critical of the administration’s policy are encouraged by the move to shift power to Iraqis, many wonder why the White House is in such a big hurry. As the Christian Science Monitor reports, the situation in Iraq is at a pivotal moment. It’s not clear that a quick turnover to Iraqis, with the U.S. holding the reins through the process, would satisfy the main sectors of Iraqi society: the Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites. While less U.S. control is seen as a good thing in the eyes of much of the world, it leaves many wondering if President Bush is really as committed to democracy in the Middle East, as he claimed in his speech last week. The New York Times editorial page writes that while less U.S. control is welcomed, it appears that the U.S. is abandoning its supposed commitment.

“Administration officials, from President Bush on down, have been pressing Mr. Bremer to speed the transfer of sovereignty to appointed Iraqi officials and to compress, radically, the one- to two-year timetable he drew up for holding elections. There is some merit in these suggestions. We have long called for a quicker transfer of real power to Iraqis, as have most of America’s allies. What is troubling, however, is the notion of short-circuiting the time necessary to draw up a workable constitution and conduct fair elections in a country as torn and troubled as Iraq. Such thinking suggests that the Bush administration is in such a rush to bring American troops home that it has lost interest in laying the foundations for a stable democracy.”

The White House has clearly been looking at the poll numbers. The American public is growing steadily more skeptical about the U.S. role Iraq. With the Democrats running a hard race for 2004, the president needs to present the occupation of Iraq as under control with limited American casualties. A recent poll conducted by the Program for International Policy attitudes at the University of Maryland found that more than half of Americans think the decision to go to war with Iraq was based on false assumptions. While 57 percent polled think the president made the right decision, this number slipped significantly from the 68 percent approval last May.

But despite such major setbacks in the U.S. and in Iraq, the Bush administration is still waxing triumphant. As Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld put it this week, “We’re proud of our decision.”

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