Death was shadowing us, just one day behind, as we flew across Iraq on our Department of Defense observation mission. The day after motoring into downtown Baghdad, to the “safe” U.S. headquarters green zone, it was hit by mortar fire and American soldiers were killed and injured.
Subsequent to our visit to the Polish forces in the pacified South, these allies suffered their first combat death, followed by many more Italians a few days later. We expected danger in Saddam Hussein’s home of Tikrit and the militants struck-downing an incoming helicopter just after we left, with all lives lost, along the same flight path as our own.
That week was the bloodiest of the war, the most American military personnel killed in action since President George W. Bush declared the end of major combat. You read about the four to six soldiers dying every day and the 40 wounded-but it is just a statistic. You see a bomb set at the Red Cross on TV and the scores killed and hundreds of Americans and Iraqis maimed but it does not seem real. But it unquestionably hits home when you are riding through a black Iraqi night in a darkened C-130 military aircraft with the body of an unidentified soldier who had been killed that day, as we did one sobering evening.
Sunnis and Shi’as
The problems in Iraq are immense, for there is no solution to the centuries-old division of the nation. In the North, the non-Arab Kurds are divided into two often-warring parties that are cooperating now only because both are determined to first remove the Arabs from their midst and guarantee their own autonomy.
The Arab Shiites in the South split into the Iran-rooted Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the Dawa Islamiyah, the Muqtada Sadr radical faction, its Ayatollah Ali Sistani-led opposition, the London-based Khoei Foundation and numerous mullahs and sheiks.
And, of course, there is the so-called Arab Sunni triangle in the West-center of the country, where most of the violence occurs, and then Baghdad’s dangerous mixture of Sunni and Shi’a with a restive urban underclass that makes the place look like the sci-fi movie Escape from New York, with Jersey walls piled 20 feet tall to keep the vandals out.
Area by area, as we traveled around-even with the violence-it is just conceivable that each might be pacified. But when one mixes these inflammable regional rivalries, it will ignite as surely as any other unstable chemical combination. To create a nationwide democracy from this artificial nation carved in London during the zenith of colonialism would truly take forever. As Middle East expert Daniel Pipes concludes, any Western occupier of a Muslim population “will eventually be worn down by the violence directed against it and give up.”
This is why the present President George W. Bush’s father rejected going to Baghdad and occupying Iraq in the first Gulf War. As George H.W. Bush said in his memoir: “Had we gone the invasion route [to Baghdad], the United States could conceivably still be an occupying power in a bitterly hostile land. It would have been a dramatically different-and perhaps barren-outcome.”
I had been opposed to committing United States ground forces in Iraq but was impressed that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had insisted that American troops on the ground be limited-only enough to win the war but not so many as to get bogged down afterwards. Once the active war was won, his plan was to turn over control to the Iraqis as soon as possible. But, with the pressure on from influential U.S. voices to increase troop levels and remain indefinitely until a functioning democracy could be created, I was willing to undertake the rigors of the trip to the combat zone to learn whether the secretary’s message had reached the troops.
The good news is that the end of the U.S. occupation is in sight and the military and civilian leaders are moving enthusiastically and rationally to implement the plan. In fact, it appears that the military leadership in Iraq has been leading Washington to this conclusion. For the indisputable fact is that American forces are stretched “to the breaking point,” as one military leader confided to us, concluding that two years was the maximum strain that could be digested by his forces.
The following day, President Bush announced that the number of troops would be reduced from 132,000 to 100,000 by April 2004. The scattered forces necessary for occupation are being consolidated in an operation “local standoff” so that they will become less vulnerable to attack, especially in Baghdad. One senior officer predicted that the number of fixed locations would be down to a handful by April in Baghdad and to a few score in the rest of the country. He flatly said the occupation would be over by the end of 2005, with the remaining coalition troops left in isolated and well-defended forts.
In the meantime, the turnover to local councils and police is already in advanced stages and the Iraqi army is being formed on an expedited basis. In hot-spot Tikrit, in the shadow of one of Saddam’s largest palace-fortresses, we watched a new battalion march its stuff in review for its graduation. One soldier we interviewed had already taught himself English and thanked us in our own language. Coalition Authority chief L. Paul Bremer told us that a new constitution could be formulated in six months but, in wake of the increased casualties, he left for Washington a few days later and convinced the White House to turn over control to a provisional Iraqi authority by the summer even without a constitutional agreement.
Federalism or Majoritarianism
That is the rub. The only possible solution between the warring factions is some form of federalism. But Bremer told us he could not force the matter on the Iraqis. We met the most reasonable and forward-looking Shiite cleric in the country, Sayyid Farkad Quizwini, who proposed a remarkably moderate program but would not consider any autonomy for Kurds or Sunnis, who he said must abide by the decisions of the “democratic” majority-which, of course, is Shi’a. The provisional law apparently will only assert that Iraq should “move toward” federalism and will leave the ideas of Islamic moral codes and one-person, one-vote majoritarianism, open.
But U.S. policy in Iraq is really about us, not them. As Rumsfeld said immediately after 9/11, if we “alter our way of life” to fight them, they will have won. An imperial United States, indefinitely administering a score of colonies, must change its fundamental institutions at home to bring them in line for this overriding mission. Limited constitutional government could not survive the required centralization and bureaucratization that would sap the creative vitality out of community and family life, religious and charitable associations, small business entrepreneurship and individual spirit that make the U.S. so much more vital even than Europe.
As we properly disengage, American casualties will continue. As heart-wrenching as this process is, recriminations regarding whether we should have entered the war are moot. The only rational course is to support the orderly transition now being implemented by our military in Iraq.