ROME—This week's events in Iraq have dealt a swift and stunning blow to the Bush administration's plans to withdraw U.S troops from the country's major cities, hand authority to local security forces and orchestrate peaceful democratic elections by January.
The street-by-street battles in the Sunni stronghold of Fallujah and the takeover of three southern cities by an extremist Shiite militia suggest that the need for U.S. forces, far from diminishing, has escalated dramatically. That may be true whether the violence has broad popular support, as some are suggesting, or whether it's the work of a small band of extremists, as U.S. officials contend.
The wave of violence now threatens the coalition's $20 billion reconstruction efforts in Iraq, and it casts doubt on whether Iraq's U.S.-appointed interim leaders, who still haven't settled on a government that will assume sovereignty on July 1, can realistically plan for the country's first-ever free elections within nine months.
The Mahdi Army, a militia under the control of radical Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, temporarily seized police stations in Baghdad, and as of Thursday it also controlled the southern towns of Kut, Kufa and Najaf.
The militia's success has exposed glaring weaknesses in the Iraqi police and security forces, most of whom melted away. It highlighted the inadequacies of some of the multinational coalition troops in the south, including the Spanish and Ukrainians, who were unable to stop the militia, and the Bulgarians, who asked the United States for troops to protect its troops.
The tough fight in Fallujah, meanwhile, is undermining the theory, which had gained currency in Army circles, that lowering the U.S. profile in certain areas was the key to stability.
The Army's 82nd Airborne Division had mostly stayed out of Fallujah since it mistakenly killed eight Iraqi policemen there in September. Now the Marines, who took over with a plan to put a gentler face on the U.S.-led occupation, are complaining that "no one ever took the time to clean it out properly," as one commander put it.
The dilemma is that while a more muscular American military presence helps keep the lid on militants, it also tends to inflame the Iraqi public. The solution was to train and equip Iraqis to keep order, but the U.S.-led coalition has been unable to create an adequate Iraqi force.
Signaling a strategic shift, the Pentagon has directed elements of the Army's 1st Armored Division, which has patrolled Baghdad since May and was scheduled to go home within weeks, to move south. Those seasoned troops are needed to help retake cities from al-Sadr's militia and to patrol parts of the country that had been occupied by multinational troops of varying combat readiness.
"We are waiting for American forces to come in and restore the peace," said a coalition official in the south who asked for anonymity because his comments were not in keeping with the coalition's upbeat public message. "The multinational forces will not do this—they refuse to leave their bases and do routine patrols. In some cases, they've withdrawn and refused to fight or hold their ground against minimal attacks."
The official said that El Salvadoran soldiers were an exception, acting "heroically" in repulsing attacks in Najaf.
American officials argue that the al-Sadr and Fallujah fighters are an extremist minority with little support among the broader population.
"It's certainly not a popular uprising supported by all Iraqis—it's not that at all," said Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at a Pentagon news briefing Wednesday.
Every opinion poll taken in Iraq shows that most Iraqis don't support an austere Islamic government, as al-Sadr does, and a majority don't support attacks on U.S. troops, which is the hallmark of the Fallujah rebels.
Al-Sadr's militia has been imposing an extremist Islamic code by intimidation in many southern cities, including Basra, Iraq's second largest, where sellers of alcohol and risque movies have been gunned down in the street. In Najaf, al-Sadr's aides had established courts and prisons, and neither Iraqi nor multinational forces moved to stop them.
Even in Ramadi, a Sunni town next to Fallujah, many residents aren't sympathetic to the insurgents, at least according to the Marines on patrol there Thursday.
"I think it's 90 percent very friendly," said Staff Sgt. Jeffrey R. Craig, 29, of Oil City, Pa. "They feel just as bad for us in what's happening as we do for them—that we're fighting in their neighborhood. They were offering whatever they had to eat for lunch, and Marines were accepting it."
History, however, suggests that revolutions aren't always made by majorities and that radical, armed minorities can take over fragile states, even ones as large as czarist Russia or the Shah's Iran.
Iraq has no legitimate government, and recent days have shown there isn't a single popular, credible leader in the country who can calm public opinion.
The one man who might have been able do that, Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al Husseini al Sistani, issued a tepid statement urging calm but criticizing U.S. actions. He seemed unwilling to confront his rival al-Sadr, lest he appear too sympathetic to the Americans.
The attacks by al-Sadr's fighters and Sistani's response have raised what for U.S. officials is the terrifying specter that al-Sadr's rebellion could grow into a broad-based uprising among 60 percent of Iraq's population that welcomed Saddam Hussein's ouster but not the American presence in their country.
"You cannot solve the Shiite problem militarily," said Anthony Cordesman, a military analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "You've got to solve it politically. If you can't solve it politically, your broader goals can't be achieved."
If Bush administration officials can take any solace this week, it could be in the notion that it's better for Iraq's future that these uprisings are happening now, while there are still 135,000 U.S. troops to quell them, rather than a year or two from now, when a fledgling Iraqi government and its newly trained security services might have even more trouble dealing with them.
The question, Cordesman said, is whether the fighting, which has caused dozens, if not hundreds, of civilian casualties and prompted a U.S. attack on a mosque, "is creating more bad guys faster than you are going to capture or kill them."
(Dilianian, Rome bureau chief for The Philadelphia Inquirer, recently returned from reporting for the Knight Ridder Baghdad bureau.)
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.