Cover Story

WHAT WENT WRONG?

The past month's developments in Iraq are serious ... and sad. WORLD, while expressing concern at times, has supported President Bush's bold policy and the resultant liberation of Iraq. We've criticized press and partisan attacks on that policy. But with six weeks to go before the June 30 handover of authority, we're concerned about signs that the Bush administration may be selling out many of those who stood most strongly against Saddam's tyranny.

Issue: "Iraq: What went wrong?," May 15, 2004

This report from WORLD's international editor Mindy Belz, who has traveled in Iraq and come to know Iraqi freedom fighters, begins by reporting a Fallujah fiasco and goes on to raise important concerns about our current Iraq policy. When it's time to send in Mohammed to do the dirty work, it's important to have the right Mohammed. Late in April U.S. officials who picked Jassim Mohammed Saleh to lead an Iraqi force into Fallujah were lauding the general, a former Republican Guard. They said he had been involved in a plot to kill Saddam Hussein. They said that Saddam had killed Mohammed's three sons. Sadly, they were mixed up. The generals in Baghdad and at Central Command apparently were referring to Mohammed Shehwani, a former air force officer who led anti-Saddam activity and whose three sons were killed as a result. Only Gen. Shehwani isn't leading any troops in Fallujah; he was just named head of the Iraqi National Intelligence Service. By the time the U.S. generals realized their mistake much damage was done. Gen. Saleh and 1,000 soldiers under his command took over positions from the U.S. Marines at the southeast entrance to Fallujah. Arab television starting on April 30 showed columns of troops-some hoisting the old Saddam-era flag-entering Fallujah under a thug commander from Saddam Hussein's regime. That image played across Arab airwaves together with the photos from Abu Ghraib prison showing U.S. soldiers torturing and mocking Iraqis. Those images led some in the Arab world, already hostile to Operation Iraqi Freedom, to claim that now everything was clear: The United States was desperate enough to bring back Saddam's men, and GI Janes were stripping and prodding contorted, prone Muslim men in the very chambers where Saddam Hussein regularly had political opponents injected with poison, as he ordered up to 2,000 executions in a day. In Baghdad and Washington, representatives from the Iraqi Governing Council furiously sent faxes and e-mails to reporters highlighting Gen. Saleh's evil past. As commander of a Republican Guard battalion in Karbala, he was responsible for crushing a Shiite uprising in 1991 after the first Gulf War (a revolt then endorsed by the first President Bush). He also commanded a Republican Guard division in Kirkuk responsible for uprooting and arresting Kurds and Turkmen in a well-documented pogrom to Arabize the oil-rich city. For his success carrying out Saddam's directives, Gen. Saleh became chief of staff of the Republican Guard Baghdad division and rose to the highest levels in the Baath Party. His two wives come from elite Baath Party families. His cousin, Khamis Sirhan Mohammed, made it onto the Pentagon's most-wanted list made famous by decks of cards. "In London and Washington it may look like a virtue to show flexibility over the Baathists. But here they will simply think you are being defeated," warned Iraq Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari. He, along with Iraqi Governing Council members, asked U.S. officers not to commission Gen. Saleh. The Americans ignored that advice until the former Republican Guard leader embarrassed his Marine commanders by insisting that "there are no foreign fighters in Fallujah." By May 2 the Pentagon was backtracking. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Richard Myers told Sunday news shows that reports of Gen. Saleh leading a Fallujah brigade were "very, very inaccurate." He said Gen. Saleh "has not been vetted yet and probably won't be the one in command." On May 3 officials announced a replacement: Mohammed Latif, a former Iraq Army general and British-trained intelligence officer. Iraqi leaders say he is an acceptable alternative. Beyond the Saleh problem, Iraqi officials blame inconsistent U.S. planning for failing to clamp down on the Fallujah fighters. They say the resistance, composed of hardened and well-trained supporters of the old regime, is already making new incursions into Baghdad. Iraq Defense Minister Ali Allawi said, "My main fear is that with the imperative of reducing civilian casualties that seems to govern the military doctrine ... of the Marines, that opportunity is given for these people to slip away, and the core of the fighters will get out and reassemble elsewhere and create mayhem at a later date." Equally serious to restoring security in Iraq is the new, public disaffection of longtime U.S. allies in Iraq. Instead of shoring up that base, some in the Bush administration are looking for new ways to undermine Iraqi democrats. Former opponents of Saddam Hussein, those who spent years in exile or in prison, have been careful not to bite the hand that feeds them now that they have offices in Baghdad. They have been cautious about expressing growing dissatisfaction with the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) and Ambassador Paul Bremer. Some will even privately admit they are worried that public criticism will lead to a Bush defeat in November, and less White House support for the Iraqis. That was before Fallujah and Abu Ghraib. "It's clear that there is no real plan," said Iraqi National Congress spokesman Entifadh Qanbar. From the Iraqi perspective, he said, "things are bad and the United States lost Fallujah. It's an oasis of Baathists now." Iraqi officials told WORLD the selection of a top Baathist general to quell a Sunni uprising-even temporarily-would have been unthinkable only weeks ago. U.S. officials until then followed a nearly year-old directive from Mr. Bremer banning from any government post former Baath leaders in the party's top four levels-which would have included Gen. Saleh. But an April 12 meeting TO DISCUSS security in Fallujah may have produced a change. That meeting included Mr. Bremer, CPA officials, and the Iraqi Governing Council and its ministries. U.S. officials were desperate to put an Iraqi face on security in Fallujah. Governing Council member and Iraqi National Congress head Ahmad Chalabi listed the Kurdistan Democratic Party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the Iraqi National Accord, and the Iraqi National Congress (INC) as CPA allies "able to immediately field a cadre of loyal and motivated troops." Such a force already existed in the 36th Battalion of the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps, which had won praise from military commanders Gen. Richard Sanchez and Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt. "Shouldn't we form more like it?" asked Jalal Talabani, another Governing Council member and head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. Mr. Qanbar told WORLD that the Governing Council members wanted CPA to expand the reach of the 36th Battalion to other areas of unrest. But Mr. Bremer dismissed the suggestion and, according to participants, warned that such militias would "politicize" the army. According to Iraqi officials, Mr. Bremer's comments suggested he would rather embrace former Saddam loyalists like Gen. Saleh than cede control to proven freedom fighters. Mr. Bremer's dismissal showed disregard for a key achievement of U.S. liberation: Iraq's two main Kurdish parties, who are longtime rivals and have gone to battle against one another, were coming together with Shiite fundamentalists and moderates and secularists to fight terror in Iraq. Their common bond: support for U.S. regime change and democracy goals in Iraq. But relying on such an alliance ran against what Mr. Qanbar called the "tendency by American bureaucrats to try to manage things directly without going to the Iraqis." He explained, "When you exclude the parties that have fought as U.S. allies, you have only these two options: to turn to the general public or to Baathists. We have seen the collapse of the security theory of the United States, in Fallujah and the south, because they have turned to these two options instead of working with their longstanding allies." Two sides have now emerged: It's the State Department bureaucrats, who dominate CPA, vs. Mr. Chalabi and others who opposed Saddam Hussein. That longstanding rift is becoming rawer by the week. Before the war, the State Department for a time cut funding to the Iraqi National Congress even though funding was approved by Congress and signed over by presidents Clinton and Bush. Now, with the stakes high and the handoff near, unnamed sources at the State Department and CIA are still trying to undercut Mr. Chalabi. One way is to peddle tips to Newsweek and Salon suggesting Mr. Chalabi has been too cozy with Iranians and may have sold "sensitive" information to Tehran. Conservatives and members of the Governing Council, along with Mr. Chalabi, labeled the charges a smear tactic. "The allegations in Newsweek are absolutely false," said Mr. Qanbar in reference to a May 10 story. "The INC is an ally of the United States and our personnel are risking their lives daily to support U.S. military and intelligence operations." CPA officials have managed also to undermine Kurdish security, and thus endanger the most prosperous and secure region of Iraq. Kurdish militias, known as peshmerga, were well trained and closely allied to U.S. policy even before the war. Their forces fought successfully alongside U.S. airborne divisions during the war. But instead of encouraging the peshmerga militias to increase their zone of security, CPA officers first underpaid them then tried to outlaw them. Now CPA has worked a compromise with the Kurdish regional government: Cut the number of peshmerga militias until they can be folded into a central security force under Baghdad control. "As we reduce the coalition presence and try to increase border security, no force in country is better suited to ensure the security of the north than the peshmerga," wrote Richard Naab, former northern coordinator for CPA. His view, according to Kurdish and U.S. leaders in the north, got Mr. Naab fired by Mr. Bremer last December. Such disputes are costing the United States good will in the north, where pro-American feelings have traditionally run high. A U.S. contractor who has worked closely with Kurdish officials in the north said, with a CPA departure imminent, most "cannot wait for them to leave," even though that won't solve Kurdish problems. With its enemies in the Sunni Triangle and in southern Shiite strongholds like Najaf and Karbala, the U.S. war effort cannot afford to lose friends in the north or elsewhere. And with a government handover only six weeks away, the bad news is that the present course set for transition seems to be a sham handover or a recipe for civil war.

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Mindy Belz
Mindy Belz

Mindy travels to the far corners of the globe as the editor of WORLD and lives with her family in the mountains of western North Carolina. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.

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