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Sunday, May 09, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Divisions emerge in military over future of Iraq occupation

By Thomas E. Ricks
The Washington Post

MUHAMMED MUHEISEN / AP
U.S. soldiers guard a highway yesterday that leads from Baghdad to Fallujah, where unrest underscores concerns about the occupation.
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WASHINGTON — Deep divisions are emerging at the top of the U.S. military over the course of the occupation of Iraq, with some senior officers beginning to say that the United States is facing the prospect of casualties for years without achieving its stated goal of establishing a free and democratic Iraq.

Their major worry is that the United States is prevailing militarily but failing to win the support of the Iraqis. That view is far from universal, but it is spreading, and being voiced publicly for the first time.

Maj. Gen. Charles Swannack, the commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, who spent much of the year in western Iraq, said he believes that at the tactical level at which fighting occurs, the U.S. military is still winning.

But when asked whether he believes the United States is losing, he said, "I think strategically, we are."

Army Col. Paul Hughes, who last year was the first director of strategic planning for the U.S. occupation authority in Baghdad, said he agrees with that view and noted that a pattern of winning battles while losing a war characterized the U.S. failure in Vietnam.

"I lost my brother in Vietnam," said Hughes, who is still involved in formulating Iraq policy. "I promised myself, when I came on active duty, that I would do everything in my power to prevent that from happening again. Here I am, 30 years later, thinking we will win every fight and lose the war, because we don't understand the war we're in."

The top U.S. commander in the war said he strongly disagrees with the view that America is heading toward defeat in Iraq.

"We are not losing, militarily," Army Gen. John Abizaid said Friday. He said that the U.S. military is winning tactically. But he stopped short of being as positive about the overall trend. Rather, he said, "Strategically, I think there are opportunities."

The prisoner-abuse scandal and the continuing car bombings and U.S. casualties "create the image of a military that's not being effective in the counterinsurgency," he said, but in reality, "The truth of the matter is, ... there are some good signals out there."

Abizaid specifically cited the resumption of economic reconstruction and the political progress made with Sunni Muslims in resolving the standoff around the city of Fallujah, and increasing cooperation from Shiite Muslims in isolating radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. "I'm looking at the situation, and I told the secretary of defense the other day, I feel pretty comfortable with where we are."

Even so, he said, "There's liable to be a lot of fighting in May and June," as the June 30 date for giving limited sovereignty to an Iraqi government approaches.
 
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The emergence of sharp differences over U.S. strategy has set off a debate, a year after President Bush declared victory in Iraq, about how to end a festering insurrection that has stymied some reconstruction efforts, made many Iraqis feel less safe and created uncertainty about who actually will run the country after June 30.

Both inside and outside the armed forces, experts generally are arguing that the U.S. military should remain there, but should change its approach. Some argue for more troops, others for less, but they generally agree on revising the United States' stated goals to make them less ambitious.

A senior general at the Pentagon said he believes the United States is on the road to defeat. "It is doubtful we can go on much longer like this," he said. "The American people may not stand for it — and they should not."

Asked who was to blame, this general pointed directly at Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz.

"I do not believe we had a clearly defined war strategy ... and exit strategy before we commenced our invasion," he said. "Had someone like Colin Powell been the chairman (of the Joint Chiefs of Staff), he would not have agreed to send troops without a clear exit strategy. The current OSD (Office of the Secretary of Defense) refused to listen or adhere to military advice."

Like several other officers interviewed for this story, this general spoke only on the condition that his name not be used. One reason for this is that some of these officers deal frequently with the senior Pentagon civilian officials they are criticizing, and some remain dependent on top officials to approve their current efforts and future promotions.

Also, some say they believe that Rumsfeld and other top civilians punish public dissent. Senior officers cite what they say was the vindictive treatment of then-Army chief of staff Gen. Eric Shinseki after he said early in 2003 that the administration was underestimating the number of U.S. troops required to occupy post-war Iraq.

Wolfowitz, the Pentagon's No. 2 official, said that he doesn't think the U.S. is losing in Iraq, and said no senior officer has expressed that thought to him. "I am sure that there are some out there" who think that, he said yesterday.

"There's no question that we're facing some difficulties," Wolfowitz said. "I don't mean to sound Pollyanna-ish — we all know that we're facing a tough problem." But, he said, "I think the course we've set is the right one, which is moving as rapidly as possible to Iraqi self-government and Iraqi self-defense."

Wolfowitz, who is widely seen as the intellectual architect of Bush administration's desire to create a free and democratic Iraq that will begin the transformation of the politics of the Middle East, also strongly rejected the idea of scaling back on that aim.

"The goal has never been to win the Olympic high jump in democracy," he said. Moving toward democratization in Iraq will take time, he said. Yet "I don't think the answer is to find some old Republican Guard generals and have them impose yet another dictatorship in an Arab country."

Commanders on the ground in Iraq presented a cautiously optimistic view.

"I am sure that the view from Washington is much worse than it appears on the ground here in Baqouba," said Col. Dana J.H. Pittard, commander of a 1st Infantry Division brigade based in that city about 40 miles north of Baghdad. "I do not think that we are losing, but we will lose if we are not careful." He said he is especially worried about maintaining political and economic progress in the provinces after the turnover of power at the end of next month.

Lt. Col. John Kem, a battalion commander in Baghdad, said that the events of the last two months — first the eruption of a Shiite insurgency, followed by the detainee-abuse scandal — "certainly made things harder," but he said he doubted they would have much effect on Iraq's long-term future.

But some say that behind those official positions lies deep concern.

One Pentagon consultant said that officials with whom he works on Iraq policy continue to put a happy face publicly, but privately are grim. When it comes to discussions of the administration's Iraq policy, he said, "It's 'Dead Man Walking.' "

A young Army general said the United States should curtail its ambitions in Iraq.

"That strategic objective, of a free, democratic, de-Baathified Iraq, is grandiose, and unattainable," he said. "It's just a matter of time before we revise downward the strategy and abandon these ridiculous objectives."

Instead, he predicted that if the Bush administration wins re-election, it simply will settle for a stable Iraq, probably run by former Iraqi generals. This is more or less, he said, what the Marines Corps recently did in Fallujah — which he described as a glimpse of future U.S. policy.

Wolfowitz sharply rejected that conclusion about Fallujah. "Let's be clear, Fallujah has always been an outlier (exception) since the liberation of Baghdad," he said. "It's where the trouble began. ... It really isn't a model for anything for the rest of the country."

But a senior U.S. military-intelligence officer experienced in Middle Eastern affairs said he thinks the administration needs to re-think its approach.

"The idea that Iraq can be miraculously and quickly turned into a shining example of democracy that will 'transform' the Middle East requires way too much fairy dust and cultural arrogance to believe," he said.

Finally, some are calling for the United States to stop fighting separatist trends among Iraq's three major groups, the Shiites, the Sunnis and the Kurds, and instead embrace them. "The best hope for holding Iraq together — and thereby avoiding civil war — is to let each of its major constituent communities have, to the extent possible, the system each wants," Peter Galbraith, a former U.S. ambassador to Croatia, wrote last month.

Even if adjustments in troop presence and goals help the United States prevail, it will not happen soon, several of those interviewed said. The United States is likely to be fighting in Iraq for "at least" another five years, said an Army officer who served there. "We'll be taking casualties," he warned, during that entire time.

A long-term problem for any administration is that it may be difficult for the American public to tell whether the United States is winning or losing, and the prospect of continued casualties raises the question of how long the public will tolerate the fighting.

"Iraq might have been worth doing at some price," said defense consultant Michael Vickers. "But it isn't worth doing at any price. And the price has gone very high."

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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