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Triumph and troubles

Print edition : Aug 01, 2003 T+T-
U.S. troops stand guard outside their headquarters in Baghdad during a protest by Iraqi soldiers demanding payment of wages.-SAMIR MEZBAN/AP

U.S. troops stand guard outside their headquarters in Baghdad during a protest by Iraqi soldiers demanding payment of wages.-SAMIR MEZBAN/AP

Internal political dynamics in the U.S. and the U.K., reflective of the growing doubts about the rationale of going to war, and increasing evidence of the inability of the occupation troops to tackle Iraqi resistance, indicate that the victors' real problems have begun after the proclamation of triumph.

KNOWN to harbour political ambitions, muscleman and Hollywood star Arnold Schwarzenegger cashed in on the opportunity to spend July 4 in the United States Army headquarters in Baghdad. Celluloid machismo afforded a rare moment of escape for U.S. service personnel from the fatigue and despair of their occupation regime in Iraq. But they could not have drawn much solace from the realisation that their commander-in-chief himself had seemingly adopted vacuous bluster as a substitute for policy.

Under pressure from the mounting evidence of a military adventure that had turned into an unending ordeal for U.S. forces, President George Bush responded with a crude colloquialism. The attacks on U.S. service personnel were obviously intended to defeat the historic mission he had undertaken to liberate Iraq, said Bush. But those fomenting the trouble were mistaken if they thought that the U.S. would be deflected from its sense of moral purpose. The U.S. had enough troops and they were "plenty tough" to deal with all enemies. And to those who would choose to take on the might of the U.S. on the streets of Iraq, Bush had just one challenge: "bring 'em on". Whether Bush intended his invitation to be taken literally will remain unclear. But the following day, 10 U.S. personnel were injured in three separate attacks in Iraq.

Increasingly tilting to the view that the growing resistance was a sign that Saddam Hussein was alive and directing a coalescence of forces from his hideaway, Paul Bremer, the chief administrator of the occupation in Iraq, announced a bounty of $25 million for the former Iraqi President. Any definitive information confirming that he had been killed in the multiple strikes launched by U.S. air and ground forces would also be similarly rewarded. Rewards of $15 million each were announced for information on Saddam's two sons - Uday and Qusay. Almost on cue, the Arab television news network Al Jazeera aired on July 4 an audio recording purporting to be from Saddam. "I am in Iraq and with a comrade," said the voice on the tape, which went on to urge the people of Iraq to help protect the fighters who were resisting the occupation by "infidels".

Soon after, Lt-General Ricardo Sanchez, commander of the U.S. forces in Iraq, came out with the assessment that his country was still at war. The point was brutally underlined when three U.S. soldiers were killed within a 12-hour period ending the early hours of July 7. And even as the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) pronounced that the first purported tape from Saddam was in all probability authentic, another surfaced, in which a disembodied voice urged the Iraqi people to show their dissent by scrawling the walls with graffiti, boycotting the occupying forces, refusing to trade with them and hindering their tasks in every possible way. The surest signal though, that the occupation had turned into a quagmire, came not from Iraq but from internal political dynamics in the main belligerent nations, the U.S. and the United Kingdom.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair managed to see through an inquiry by a House of Commons committee on his use of intelligence inputs in making the case for war. But he still faces a series of tough questions and a two-month deadline to come up with convincing responses. Blair has cleverly shifted his ground - from arguing that Iraq's possession of weapons of mass destruction constituted the case for war, he has now put the burden of explanation on the brutality of the Saddam regime and its intent to retain the know-how for producing the proscribed weapons at some future date. But the defence and intelligence communities in the U.K. are clearly restive and Blair's bruising row with the hallowed media institution, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), has done his credibility little good.

In the U.S. though, political dissent constitutes more compelling evidence of the serious crisis that the war lobby faces. On the day before American Independence Day, a former top official of the CIA conducted a series of media interviews to reveal some of the results of his inquiry into the agency's use of intelligence material on Iraq's weapons programmes. He had found, reportedly, that the information available had all been rather ambiguous. Yet the agency had been under pressure from the Bush administration to report a definitive finding that Iraq was in material breach of the United Nations resolutions prohibiting it from developing specific kinds of lethal weaponry. The CIA had failed to find any proof of operational ties between Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network and the erstwhile Iraqi regime.

On July 6, Joseph C. Wilson, a former diplomat with vast experience in U.S. missions in Africa, wrote in The New York Times that his experience with the Bush administration led him to the conclusion that "some of the intelligence related to Iraq's nuclear weapons programme was twisted to exaggerate the Iraqi threat". With suitable modesty, Wilson referred to the "small role" he had played in the "effort to verify information about Africa's suspected link to Iraq's non-conventional weapons programmes". He had, in February 2002, undertaken a trip to Niger on a mandate from the U.S. State Department and the CIA. He learnt on arrival that the U.S. embassy in Niger had been keeping a close watch on the country's uranium mining industry and had "already debunked" reports about exports of the nuclear raw material to Iraq. His own findings, arrived at after eight days of inquiries in Niger, were consistent with the embassy's. And upon arrival in Washington, he had promptly briefed the State Department and the CIA. "There was nothing secret or earth-shattering in my report," wrote Wilson, "just as there was nothing secret about my trip".

Yet in his State of the Union speech to the U.S. Congress in January this year, Bush referred to a definitive intelligence finding that Iraq was trying to import uranium from Niger. The same claim was repeated in the U.N. Security Council by Secretary of State Colin Powell on February 5. The team from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) overseeing Iraq's compliance with U.N. disarmament resolutions soon went into this allegation. Later in February, IAEA Director-General Mohammad el-Baradei informed the Security Council, looking a deeply discomfited Powell straight in the eye, that the documents purporting to show a transaction between Iraq and Niger were "not authentic". Later, investigative work, notably by the journalist Seymour Hersh, revealed that the documents were so crudely forged as to constitute an embarrassment to U.S. and British intelligence. But few questions were raised about the rationale for war, as this and other patent concoctions of the Bush-Blair duo held the field virtually unchallenged by the political establishment and the media.

Curiously, the interrogation of the stated rationale of the war has begun well after it has been declared closed. Under pressure from Wilson's revelations in the media, the Bush administration issued a sequence of contradictory statements, before finally conceding that the President had relied on "incomplete and perhaps inaccurate information". With Bush due to leave on a five-nation tour of Africa, the admission could not have come at a worse time. On an immediately preceding overseas trip, he had asserted with absolute confidence that U.S. forces had indeed found the weapons of mass destruction that constituted the principal cause for war. Speaking to the press in Poland, on the first leg of a European tour, he said: "Yes, we found a biological laboratory in Iraq which the U.N. prohibited".

Two truck trailers found in the vicinity of Iraqi military establishments in May had been the basis for this assertion, which was duly attested by the CIA. Investigations revealed that the vehicles in question were nothing more lethal than facilities to fill hydrogen balloons for battlefield surveillance by artillery units. The CIA, which had posted its findings on the Internet just around the time Bush left for Europe, discretely deleted it the moment weapons experts from the U.S. and the U.K. termed its findings to be utterly untenable.

At a press conference in Pretoria on July 9, Bush showed no overt discomfiture over being caught out once again. "I am absolutely confident in the decision I made," he said. "I'm convinced that the world is a much more peaceful and secure place as a result of the actions."

The belated questions being raised about the case for war are an indication that the traditional notion of victors' justice has been vanquished. Indeed, the ostensible victors are finding that their real problems have only begun with the declaration of triumph. Troop morale has plunged, as the occupation forces, with little knowledge of the cultural milieu they are operating in, have responded to threats - both real and perceived - with excessive force. In two recent operations to root out the Iraqi resistance, U.S. forces raided a large number of localities, taking a number of prisoners and causing immense damage to their own cause with their tactless and rough methods.

Anger is believed to be rising among the families of U.S. military personnel at the manner in which the administration plunged into a reckless war with no foreseeable end. The costs for the U.S. economy - already burdened with the highest unemployment rates in over a decade - are rising. In a recent testimony before a committee of the U.S. Senate, Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld put the costs of the Iraqi occupation at $3.9 billion a month; and the operations in Afghanistan at $900 million to 950 million. This was the first definitive figure put on the costs that were until then the subject of informed conjecture. With the tax cuts introduced by Bush already playing havoc with budgetary arithmetic, there is little doubt that the occupation of Iraq will soon become an unsupportable burden for the U.S. Public opinion is unlikely to be mollified by the administration's complete lack of remorse or regret.

The attitude was best exemplified by Rumsfeld's testimony before the Senate Committee. The report on Iraq's imports of uranium from Niger was just "one scrap of intelligence" that had been used in making the case for war, he said. He may well have known that it was fallible, but he did not have the inclination to devote more attention to it than to any other input he may have received. In a virtual admission that the entire trail of information laid out prior to the war may have been fraudulent, Rumsfeld admitted that there had been no "dramatic new evidence" gathered prior to the decision to go to war. The U.S. acted because it saw old evidence "in a dramatic new light - through the prism of 9/11". Contrary to his early promises of making a quick exit from Iraq, Rumsfeld now seems to believe that U.S. forces would have to remain there for an indefinite duration. Some of the units could conceivably be rotated to minimise stress, and over time it is likely that other countries could contribute forces to relieve the U.S. of the burden it was bearing almost exclusively.

In his most chastening admission of plans gone awry, Rumsfeld indicated that he would welcome troop contingents from Germany and France - countries that he had derided prior to the war as "old Europe", unrepresentative of the new centres of power on the continent. And in yet another retraction of his early insistence on U.S. exceptionalism, the abrasive and arrogant Defence Secretary seemed actually to wish for a U.N. endorsement that would permit other friendly nations to contribute troops.