A turning point in the Iraqi mess?

Historians looking back upon the American experience in Iraq may well consider the events of the first half of November to have been critical in determining the success or failure of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

In that time, scores of Americans and their allies have been killed by Iraqi insurgents. Public polling and intelligence surveys in Iraq have discovered that the average Iraqi may be pleased that Saddam Hussein is gone but clearly is not pleased that America is running Iraq.

Analysis of a Gallup Poll of Iraqis finds that fewer than 10 percent of them believe that the US invaded to help Iraqis, and even fewer believe that the US objective was to establish a true democracy in their land.

Meanwhile, the Philadelphia Inquirer got hold of a highly classified CIA report warning that an increasing number of Iraqis believe that the insurgents can defeat the American-led forces, and that the majority Shiite Muslim population might join the Sunnis to achieve that objective. This assessment reportedly was signed by the CIA station chief in Baghdad and Paul Bremer, leader of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq.

The picture of chaos was advanced by the sudden summoning of Mr. Bremer to Washington for urgent consultations. He was sent back to Baghdad with instructions to speed up the transfer of power from the CPA to the Iraqi Governing Council (the US- selected body that Iraqis regard as dishonest dupes, according to surveys).

Beginning a visit to Asia, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, a chief architect of the go-it-alone invasion of Iraq, was pleading for help: "We'd like assistance. We'd like troop assistance, we'd like humanitarian assistance, we'd like financial assistance."

Read that: Help! We want some other countries to send their troops in here to die. (Thank you, Italy, by the way. Thank you, Britain.) We want some other countries to help pay for the monumental cost of this. (But we'll decide who gets the reconstruction contracts.)

Then this: After the death of 16 Americans in the Nov. 2 downing of a Chinook helicopter, the US military command decided to launch a heightened offensive against the insurgents. The Pentagon said this offensive would be code-named "Operation Iron Hammer."

Set aside for a moment word that the first prominent strike of Iron Hammer was a warehouse on the outskirts of Baghdad where Iraqis were warned in advance of the attack and where nothing of significance was destroyed or found.

Consider that Operation Iraqi Freedom, the high-minded sobriquet attached to the invasion and occupation of Iraq, was displaced by Operation Iron Hammer. Then wonder what genius in the Pentagon came up with Iron Hammer. Surely the idea didn't come from the State Department. Iron Hammer sounds too much like Iron Fist, the description that successive Israeli leaders have used over the past 20 years to describe how they'll deal with Palestinian and Lebanese enemies, the latter having driven Israel out of south Lebanon.

In Baghdad, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez actually used the word "war" to describe what's going on in Iraq. The Bush administration doesn't like that word because war involves "major combat," which the president proclaimed was over six months and more than 283 American lives ago.

"We are not walking away, we are not faltering, we are going to win this battle, and this war," said General Sanchez. The definition of the battle and the war may change again before either is won in the way Sanchez has in mind. For the greatest fear in Washington and elsewhere - especially among America's friends - is not the war; it's the "walking away" and the bloody chaos that could ensue.

When George Bush decided to invade and occupy Iraq with only Britain as a major ally, he went against the earlier best judgments of most people with any experience in the region, including that of his own father during his own time of war against Iraq.

The grand vision of a pacified, democratized Iraq, with vast oil reserves enabling it to pay its own way and shine the light for the rest of the region, must have seemed quickly achievable. Clearly, it did to Mr. Rumsfeld, Vice President Dick Cheney, and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz - the architects of this adventure.

But they were wrong. And every day of every week, more Americans are being maimed and killed because of their wrongness.

Lately, the fear has shifted from whether America would stay too long in Iraq to whether it would leave too soon, especially with the White House eye on next November.

Even the most committed opponents of the invasion recognize that leaving too soon would add another wrong to the first wrong. Rumsfeld was right to ask for help from abroad. Every member of this administration should ask for help, from every quarter, to help stabilize Iraq, even if it means Washington doesn't have full control.

And come next November, Americans should remember this November - and who took us on this ill-fated, deadly adventure.

G. Jefferson Price III is The Baltimore Sun's Perspective editor. He was that newspaper's Middle East correspondent in the 1970s and '80s. © 2003 The Baltimore Sun.

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