By John E. Mulligan
The Providence Journal
March 25, 2005
Traveling from the Al Udeid Air Base in this Red Sea oil emirate, he is with U.S. Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., a former Army officer. He and Abizaid will visit with U.S. diplomats and key Army and Marine units.
The success of Iraq's national elections in January crystallized hopes that the American occupation can eventually give way to a stable Iraqi democracy.
But two months have passed without a political deal among Iraq's three competing ethnic and religious groups to proceed with the creation of a permanent government and a new constitution, reviving concerns among Iraqi skeptics of the American enterprise.
Prospects for reducing and eventually withdrawing the U.S. force of 150,000 troops in Iraq hinge not only on its own success in establishing security but also on the political progress of Iraqi leaders and on the pace of American-financed reconstruction efforts.
"All of this is related," Reed said in an interview during the flight to Doha for a tour of several days, his fifth to Iraq. "There is no nice division between the military and the political and the economic."
Reed described some of the issues that he hopes to take up with an array of U.S. military and civilian officials, and possibly some Iraqi leaders.
For instance, he wants to find out if the unusual daylight ambush of an American military column near Baghdad last Sunday - in which 24 attackers were killed - is a sign of progress in the war or of worse things to come.
"Is this desperation?" Reed asked of the attack, seeing a potentially positive sign of disarray among the anti-American insurgents. "Or have they decided that they can take on the American units any time they want?"
Last week, the departing commander of the Marines in Iraq was the latest military leader to argue that the insurgency appears to have weakened in Sunni Muslim areas, based on the reduction in the frequency and effectiveness of attacks on U.S. troops in recent months.
Officials have cited as possible factors the battle of Fallujah in November and the daunting effect on the insurgency of the turnout of millions of Iraqis to vote.
"Fallujah denied them sanctuary and that was necessary," Reed said of the insurgents. "But it would be naive to assume that this is going away." Reed said he wants to find out if the insurgents, having failed in their pre-election surge of violence to dampen the vote, "are in a natural period of reconstituting their forces and retooling their strategy."
Another key factor is the progress toward creation of a well-trained and well-equipped force of Iraqi troops and police.
This week, Iraqi troops attacked an insurgent training camp northwest of Baghdad. But here again, Reed said questions remain about the quality of the Iraqi trainees. Congressional testimony by U.S. political and military leaders has been so vague on the topic that it has undercut the refrain that 140,000 Iraqis make up the force, he said.
"You drill down and ask questions, and you find out that some aren't trained, some aren't competent," said Reed. He said he will ask officials how many Iraqi commando units are capable of such actions as attacking an insurgent camp.
On the political front, Reed said the fading glow from January's elections seems to have given way to skepticism and frustration among ordinary Iraqis about the ability of Shiite Muslims and Kurds to select the top leaders of a new government, write a constitution and involve the once-dominant Sunnis, who boycotted the elections and are a principal source of the insurgency.
Reed endorsed the Bush administration's public stance of letting the Iraqi blocs hash out their problems; this is a welcome change from the methods of the U.S. authority that ran Iraq for most of the year after the invasion, Reed said.
"We can't do their work for them, but we can structure their work, we can encourage them, we can even cajole them," he said. But too overt or heavy-handed a U.S. role in Iraq's first experiment with democratic politics "could cause such resentment that the whole thing could begin to fall apart."
He can be reached at jmulligan(at)belo-dc.com
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