Signs of new momentum in Iraq

Death of Hussein sons brings fresh hope of a turning point.

Saddam Hussein's two sons - gone. An Iraqi national council - up and running. Reconstruction of Iraq's shattered infrastructure - picking up the pace.

After weeks of dreary news about attacks on US soldiers and generally unstable Iraqi security, it's possible that the situation has reached a turning point.

Administration officials and some outside experts are cautiously optimistic that life in that battered country will now begin to steadily improve. If so, it's about time: The next three months may constitute an important window of opportunity for the US reconstruction effort.

"The psychology of the situation has changed ... to create a momentum for the [US-led coalition] that did not exist before," says Robert Pfaltzgraff, an international- security expert at Tufts University's Fletcher School in Medford, Mass.

In the short term, however, remnants of the old Iraqi regime may launch new attacks as revenge for the deaths of Uday and Qusay Hussein. Wednesday two US soldiers were killed and nine wounded when their vehicles hit explosive devices.

In Washington Wednesday government officials were expressing relief - if not triumph - that they had finally cornered two of the name targets they had been after for so long.

Granted, Uday and Qusay were not as important to the US as their father, or Osama bin Laden. But neither were they important but obscure functionaries about whom the US public had heard little.

Qusay in particular was Mr. Hussein's heir apparent, and someone the Baath Party opposition could have rallied around even in the absence of his father.

"Saddam was fairly reliant on Qusay, and Qusay was in charge of the intelligence network in Iraq," says one knowledgeable US official. "His career seemed to mirror very much Saddam's earlier career in the Baath Party."

In a Rose Garden address Wednesday, President Bush said that the death of Hussein's sons proved that US military forces remain on the offensive and are making progress in destroying remnants of the old regime.

"Now more than ever, all Iraqis can know that the former regime is gone and will not be coming back," said Mr. Bush.

The president also praised the formation of Iraq's new Governing Council, members of which met with UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in New York on Tuesday. And he said that his chief administrator in Iraq, Paul Bremer, has a new plan to accelerate the progress of Iraqi reconstruction.

"The plan sets out ambitious timetables and clear benchmarks to measure progress and practical methods for achieving results," said Bush.

Outlined by Mr. Bremer at a lunchtime National Press Club appearance, this plan aims to recruit and train one battalion of a new Iraqi army within the next 60 days, for instance. It also pledges to restore electric power to pre-war levels within two months - a daunting task, given the decrepitude of Iraq's electricity infrastructure.

The demise of Hussein's two sons, who were evidently located for the US by an informant within their inner circle, is certainly a large step forward in terms of closure, says a former US intelligence official who worked in the region.

They were roundly feared and detested in their own country. Now there's not chance they will come back, ever.

"To a lot of people that means a big sigh of relief," says this former official.

But this needs to be followed by some sort of reassurance to the Sunni minority in Iraq, from which the Hussein family drew much of its support, that their legitimate interests will be considered.

"What we need to do along with military operations [in Sunni areas] is more public outreach," says this official. "We need some carrots up there."

The pace of reconstruction also may need to be redoubled. A recent assessment mission by the Council on Foreign Relations, which evaluated efforts in the country at the request of the Pentagon, said last week that the US is entering a crucial reconstruction phase.

"The next 12 months will be decisive. The next three months are crucial to turning around the security situation, which is volatile in key parts of the country," concluded the report of the mission.

Among key recommendations of the commission, which was led by John Hamre, president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, were the establishment of public safety everywhere in the country and an expansion of Iraqi ownership of the rebuilding process.

People need to be put back to work, said the report, and funding needs to be more forthcoming and more flexible.

The US appears to have clearly underestimated how mammoth the task of rebuilding Iraq would be. In part, this may be due to an underestimation of the effect of years of economic sanctions on such basic services as power and water.

A number of US officials, among them former administrator Gen. Jay Garner, have testified to their surprise at the run-down infrastructure. "Seems to me we should have known that [beforehand]," says Mr. Pfaltzgraff of the Fletcher School.

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