It was always a small measure of comfort for most foreign civilians in Iraq that no matter how bad things got they could be pretty sure to find a way out. Not anymore. The major arteries leading to Iraq’s borders, once clogged with U.S.-made SUVs carrying journalists and diplomats and aid workers, are now no-go areas patrolled by insurgents eager to kidnap or kill any foreigner they come across. The safest exit strategy is to catch a flight out of Baghdad’s international airport and trust that the pilot can dodge the rockets that rebels sometimes fire at planes after takeoff. But last week just getting there was an ordeal: roadside bombs and insurgent attacks prompted U.S. forces to twice seal off the main highway to the airport. The closures were temporary, but across Baghdad, they added to the ineluctable sense that the city is under siege. Behind the blast walls of housing compounds, people huddled, waited and wondered, How are we going to get out of here?
After 18 months of increasingly grisly violence in Iraq, finding an answer to that question has never seemed more urgent to most Americans. While last week wasn’t the deadliest since the beginning of the occupation, it was nevertheless among the most distressing. Amid grinding combat between U.S. forces and the insurgency, a surge in kidnappings and decapitations has infused the conflict with a new dimension of terror. Two American contractors pulled from their home in broad daylight early last month were shown on Islamic websites being beheaded by militants loyal to al-Qaeda kingpin Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi. Their British colleague faced a similar fate. Two Italian women taken four weeks ago were also reportedly executed, though Rome would not confirm the claims. Ten employees of an Iraqi cell-phone company were abducted in Baghdad and Fallujah. That rebels could so easily stage such brazen attacks has left many observers questioning whether the U.S. can possibly bring sanity — to say nothing of stability — to the country it has inherited.
Doubts about the future of the American effort in Iraq have smoldered at a low burn for months, rising and falling in intensity with the undulations of the U.S. death rate. But when George W. Bush and John Kerry square off this week in Coral Gables, Fla., in the first of three presidential debates, Iraq will be the main — and surely most vital — subject. Both candidates spent the days leading up to the face-off sharpening their differences over the state of the occupation. At a speech in New York City, Kerry trashed Bush’s upbeat assessment of conditions in Iraq and the next day accused the Commander in Chief of living in a “world of fantasy spin” for speaking of Iraq as a budding democracy. In fact, Kerry says, Iraq has become a Hobbesian environment that is breeding terrorists and sucking U.S. forces into a Vietnam-style quagmire, a “war with no end in sight.” Some Kerry advisers exulted in their candidate’s straight talk. “We have gone on the offensive, and are dictating the field,” says one. But the White House pounced, charging that Kerry was slouching toward defeatism. At the White House last Thursday, Bush basked in the praise of Iraq’s first post-Saddam leader, interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, and while noting the “persistent violence” that plagues the country, he insisted that elections will be held, as scheduled, in January 2005. “You can understand how hard it is,” Bush said, “and still believe we’ll succeed.” Allawi went even further. “We are succeeding in Iraq,” he told Congress.
So, who’s right? Few military or intelligence officials back the rosier assessments of Allawi and the Bush Administration. Neither does a majority of the American public: according to a TIME poll, only 37% say Bush has been truthful in describing the situation in Iraq, and 55% believe it is worse than Bush claims. Even White House officials acknowledge that the U.S. has lost control of swaths of Iraq, including parts of the capital, where insurgents roam with near impunity. While Allawi says 15 of 18 provinces are controlled by forces friendly to the new Iraqi government, that grip is shaky in Sunni areas. Even in the relatively subdued Shi’ite south, coalition forces and their Iraqi recruits face daily harassment from militants loyal to rebel cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. And the military believes that the al-Zarqawi-led insurgency is becoming more ruthless and resilient. “If we don’t kill or capture them,” says a U.S. general in Iraq, “they move on to fight somewhere else.”
However gloomy, the outlook isn’t yet hopeless. The Bush Administration’s prewar vision of turning Iraq into a beachhead of democracy in the Arab world is indeed remote. But for all the rhetorical sniping on the campaign trail, Bush and Kerry agree with the consensus of policymakers and military commanders in Washington and Iraq: a significant reduction in the U.S. presence is impossible until a credible Iraqi government proves it can defend itself against an insurgency that is likely to persist for years. The range of plausible scenarios if the U.S. were to pull out includes an Islamic state that provides sanctuary to terrorists like al-Zarqawi and a civil war that could draw in neighboring countries like Syria and Iran. “We cannot walk away from this one,” says retired Marine Corps General Anthony Zinni, a former head of U.S. forces in the Middle East and a leading critic of the Administration’s handling of Iraq. “It would be a colossal failure if we fail to deliver on this.”
So no matter who ends up in the White House in January, U.S. troops are staying in Iraq indefinitely — possibly in even greater numbers. Pentagon officials say U.S. troop strength there, now at 136,000, could rise by as many as 15,000 during the first four months of 2005, as troops arriving to replace those who have been there for a tour of duty overlap. Bush has refused to set a timetable for a reduction in forces, and insists that “we will stay the course” until Iraq is stabilized. Kerry is trying to convince the public that he can turn things around fast enough to bring the troops home by the end of his first term — mainly by pursuing policies that Bush says he’s already carrying out. In the TIME poll 46% say Bush is more likely to bring a successful end to the situation in Iraq, while 42% say Kerry would do a better job.
Whoever wins in November will find that success in Iraq remains out of reach until the U.S. makes headway in accomplishing five key goals. Here’s what it will take:
1. Get Offensive
As long as insurgents are allowed to operate freely in Iraqi cities like Fallujah, the U.S. has little hope of establishing any lasting order. U.S. commanders are developing plans to eliminate insurgent no-go zones in the Sunni triangle, west and north of Baghdad. “The strategy is to get local control to the maximum extent by December,” a U.S. general says. But the U.S. wants to hold off on major combat until sufficient numbers of Iraqi forces are trained and equipped to fight alongside American forces, which isn’t likely until after the U.S. presidential election. The participation of Iraqis in the coming offensive is critical for Allawi, who is struggling to establish his independence from the occupiers. But the longer the U.S. waits, the more time it gives the insurgency to spread. “The insurgents are only going to grow stronger and more bold,” says Zinni. “We have got to take action more quickly.”
U.S. leaders say once the offensives begin, they will be modeled on the August battle to remove al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army from the holy shrine of Najaf — in which U.S. forces pounded militia positions until al-Sadr agreed to turn over the shrine to Iraqi forces. The military has since moved to reassert itself in no-go areas like Baghdad’s Sadr City slum and Samarra, a rebel-friendly city north of Baghdad. But U.S. forces encountered resistance trying to patrol both places last week. The fight to take back rebel sanctuaries could well result in heavy casualties on both sides, but at this point the U.S. doesn’t have much choice. “The Iraqis are already paying a hell of a price in terms of the violence being inflicted on their own people,” says Zinni. “It’s pay me now or pay me later.”
2. Train Iraqis
American commanders say they have the military firepower to uproot the rebels from their havens. But even Iraqis who loathe the insurgency won’t tolerate a constant U.S. military presence in their neighborhoods. The only viable solution is to nudge Iraqi forces forward to take over the job of maintaining order. The Pentagon aims to train enough Iraqi forces to control the whole country by year’s end, but there’s little chance it will meet that goal. Of the 260,000 Iraqis recruited for the new security forces, about 95,000 have been trained. Last week Kerry called for a stepped-up effort to deploy an Iraqi army but offered few specifics beyond what the military is already doing. The U.S. has added $1.8 billion to the $3.4 billion it originally earmarked for the task of building an indigenous force. U.S. commanders say they have seen improvement in the capabilities of Iraqi units since their miserable performance during the fighting last spring, demonstrated most dramatically in the battle for Najaf. “It was a flip-flop,” says Air Force General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “The estimate is that 70% of the Iraqi units that participated performed very, very well.”
For U.S. forces to turn over responsibility, that percentage will have to rise. The Iraqis have been bolstered by the recent arrival of sorely needed supplies of body armor, ammunition and weapons that had been held up for months by Pentagon red tape. But cultivating commanders who can impose discipline on their forces — especially in the face of insurgent threats — will be a much slower process. “The tough stuff is the soft stuff,” Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told lawmakers last week. “It’s the chain of command, the leadership structure — reality tells me that’s going to be the toughest part of the puzzle.”
3. Improve Intelligence
Since the start of the occupation, the biggest obstacle to defeating the insurgency has been the U.S.’s struggle to identify the enemy. Estimates of the size and composition of the insurgency fluctuate daily. Military officials and insurgent sources say the resistance is being spearheaded by jihadists loyal to al-Zarqawi. U.S. intelligence sources believe, according to an official, that while foreign fighters make up a small fraction of the insurgency, they may account for as much as 50% or more of suicide bombings, the deadliest weapon in the enemy’s arsenal.
In the past month U.S. commanders have detected a backlash among Iraqis against the jihadists and their tactics. Better intelligence has helped the U.S. target safe houses in and around Fallujah. An air strike two weeks ago killed Sheik Abu Anas al-Shami, believed to be one of al-Zarqawi’s key commanders. The Pentagon has disclosed that a team of Ã©lite special-ops soldiers, called Task Force 626, is hunting al-Zarqawi. But cracking his network will take time, fortitude and luck. To silence potential informants, al-Zarqawi and his allies have begun distributing DVDs showing the execution of suspected collaborators. In one made by nationalist guerrillas last month, two Iraqis working for U.S. companies are shown getting their throats slit and bleeding to death.
4. Kick-Start Reconstruction
While improving intelligence may help contain the insurgency, defusing its appeal to frustrated young Iraqis will require a more aggressive campaign to improve their living conditions. Kerry’s most effective assault on the Administration’s ineptitude is his charge that of the $18 billion appropriated by Congress for reconstruction projects, only $1 billion has actually been spent. Though unemployment has soared above 50% in parts of Iraq, the U.S. civilian administration has failed to put in effect any kind of large-scale public jobs program to wean disempowered young men away from the insurgents, who now offer as much as $3,000 for a successful attack on U.S. troops. Says Pentagon adviser Andrew Krepinevich, a retired Army officer who heads the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments: “We ought to be putting as many Iraqis to work as possible and making them as tired as possible at the end of the day.”
Responsibility for dispensing reconstruction funds has shifted from the Pentagon to the State Department, which is focusing on job creation rather than major infrastructure projects. But the collapse of security has chased out many relief organizations, and scores of employees of local companies hired by the U.S. have been killed by insurgents. Little will be accomplished, U.S. officials acknowledge, until the security environment improves. Says a Western diplomat in Iraq: “You can’t get reconstruction going when your contractors are being shot at.”
5. Hold Real Elections
Despite Allawi’s insistence that he intends to stick to the U.N.-backed plans to hold a national election for a new parliament in January, almost no one believes that the country will be pacified by then. The question is whether the U.S. should press ahead with a vote that might exclude millions of Iraqis, many of them Sunnis already inclined to view the election with skepticism. While Kerry suggested that the election might have to be postponed, the Bush Administration says it intends to meet the January deadline no matter how rampant the violence gets. “Nothing’s perfect in life,” Rumsfeld said.
Given the scale of the resentment, will any vote held under such conditions be considered acceptable? One key will be to assure Sunni leaders that they will have a stake in the new political order. “The level of violence does not preclude elections,” says a Western diplomat in Iraq. “I’m not hitting the panic button on this yet.” In any case, the election will be less about U.S.-style campaigning than back-room haggling, with the goal of putting together a fairly representative government that can slowly win legitimacy. “Democracy is a new concept in Iraq,” says a State Department official. “If this is lighter on democracy and heavier on the negotiated elements, then so be it.”
If all the above goals can be achieved — and there’s no guarantee that they can — what will Iraq look like? In the short run, it could wind up resembling the Administration’s other exercise in nation building, Afghanistan: lawless and plagued by jihadist insurgents, with a weak central government dependent on U.S. protection for survival. Optimistic U.S. and Iraqi officials hope that over the course of years the country will evolve into an Arab version of Pakistan, a fractious quasi-democracy held together by a strongman but reasonably able to defend itself. Few Americans had such an outcome in mind when the U.S. went into Iraq last spring. But if that’s the bargain required to find a way out, there are even fewer who wouldn’t take it.
— Reported by Michael Ware; Phil Zabriskie/Baghdad; Scott Macleod/Cairo; Helen Gibson/London; Perry Bacon Jr.; Timothy J. Burger; Massimo Calabresi; Matthew Cooper; Mark Thompson/ Washington