Iraq conflict at a pivotal moment

Twin US efforts would accelerate self-rule and step up military efforts in an urgent bid to keep chaos from spreading.

Faced with a deadly insurgency abroad and a tide of complaints at home, the White House is hitting the throttle - pushing for faster action on crucial aspects of its strategy toward Iraq.

Thus the US is accelerating its timetable for Iraqi self-government, redoubling military efforts against insurgents via Operation Iron Hammer, and turning up the volume on efforts to sell the American public on the long-term benefit of Iraq transformation.

This movement comes at a moment when the US effort in Iraq may have reached a turning point. A new CIA assessment portrays Iraq as a nation on a knife-edge, balanced between democracy and chaos. Absent a change in direction, the US drive to transform Iraq could still fail, it says.

In Washington "there was a degree of atmosphere of crisis this week, not business as usual," says a former intelligence officer who recently rotated through the region.

President Bush Thursday said that after two days of consultations in Washington he was sending the top US administrator in Iraq, Paul Bremer, back to Baghdad with a mandate to speed up establishment of an Iraqi government.

"That's a positive development.... We want the Iraqis to be more involved in the governance of their country," said Mr. Bush.

Some US officials have expressed frustration with what they perceive to be foot-dragging on the part of the US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, but for now the administration does not plan to abandon the IGC. Ambassador Bremer is instead bringing a number of options to the table for discussion with the Iraqi leaders. Among them: creating a smaller body within the 24-member council, or perhaps appointing a single interim leader.

Previously the US had insisted that it would not hand over control of the country to Iraqis until a constitution was in place and elections held. The administration now seems willing to cede sovereignty to some interim authority prior to establishing the Iraqi government's final form.

Such a move would recognize the reality that the governing council is not widely popular in Iraq, and would put the US position more in line with that of France, Germany, and the UN. It might also allow Bush to point to forward movement in Iraq during next year's election campaign in the US.

"The president wants to be able to say he returned Iraq to the Iraqis, and I think Bremer and his team are feeling the fatigue of trying to manage the complexity and diversity of Iraqi politics," says Ellen Laipson, president of the Stimson Center in Washington, a think tank that deals with security issues.

But that very complexity may make it as difficult to find an interim form of government acceptable to all Iraqis as it is to write an Iraqi constitution. Three major factions must be represented - the Kurds from the north, the Shiite Muslims from the south, and the Sunni Muslims from the center - and it is not clear whether there is a person or framework that all would agree symbolizes Iraqi sovereignty.

"How do you do that within a democratic framework? That's the bigger picture," says Robert Pfaltzgraff, an expert on international security at Tufts University's Fletcher School in Medford, Mass.

Meanwhile, it is far from clear that putting more of an Iraqi face on the US occupation of the country would lead to a decrease in insurgent attacks. Indications are that the attacks are the product of a planned campaign, organized by members of the former regime - not spontaneous outbursts caused just because the US isn't handing over the keys to the country fast enough.

Maj. Gen. Charles Swannack Jr., commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, has gone so far as to say that he believes the insurgency is the counterattack that Saddam Hussein planned all along.

The insurgents don't mean to militarily defeat the US so much as undermine the occupation at home while chilling ordinary Iraqis into silence and away from supporting any US-backed government.

In that context the insurgents might see Washington's anxiousness to accelerate Iraqification as evidence of success.

"They smell blood now and think they can force us to leave," says Dr. Pfaltzgraff.

The US military response to this situation has been to redouble attacks on suspected insurgent locations with more force than has been used at almost any time since the end of major combat operations in the spring.

Under an effort code-named "Operation Hammer" US troops attacked a dye factory in southern Baghdad on Wednesday, only hours after a bomb in the southern city of Nasiriyah destroyed an Italian paramilitary base. They destroyed the building using large-caliber weapons.

In another example of the get-tough policy an Apache helicopter gunship also destroyed a van thought to be carrying a mortar.

While such attacks might be necessary the US needs to refrain from tough actions that might build more resentment among the population, warn experts.

"They need to go after the insurgents in as precise a manner as they can to inflict losses on those who are trying to get us, while trying to avoid bad interactions with the Iraqi populations," says Patrick Lang, former head of Middle East intelligence at the Defense Intelligence Agency.

Meanwhile, last week Bush attempted to lift America's eyes from the short-term problems in Iraq to the long-term possibilities. In a speech at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington he pledged an effort to bring democracy to the Middle East comparable to the effort that ended communism in Eastern Europe.

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