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A hard road in Iraq

Paul Rogers
3 September 2003

When Uday and Qusay Hussein were killed on 22 July, there was an assumption that the old regime’s influence in Iraq was at last nearing its end, and that violent opposition would decline. In recent weeks, four major attacks within the country have all pointed to a degree of strategy and coordination that counters any idea that the United States is still facing the depleted remnants of Saddam Hussein’s supporters.

First, the destruction of the Jordanian diplomatic compound had an effect on a number of neighbouring countries, resulting in considerable caution in dealing with Iraqi diplomats and reminding those states that close contact with the United States would encourage attacks on their own people. Second, the attack on the UN headquarters and the assassination of Sergio Vieira de Mello had an even greater effect, leading to a withdrawal of staff from the UN, World Bank, the IMF and a number of non-governmental development agencies.

This week’s attack (and the fourth in chronological sequence) on the Baghdad police headquarters was a further indication of the vulnerability of those police and security forces that are being actively trained and supported by the US.

Most damaging of all was the third attack, the appalling car bombing in Najaf on 29 August, killing well over 100 people and assassinating Ayatollah Mohammad Baqr al-Hakim. The impact of this on the Shi’a religious and political leadership is difficult to judge, but it demonstrates a capability to plan attacks that is both sophisticated and deep-rooted.

The evidence of combat injuries

Some analysts have suggested that the significance of these attacks on the Jordanians, the UN and the police, and even the bombing in Najaf, are all indications of an opposite trend. The idea is that the need to attack “soft” targets may actually show that the US security forces themselves are actually less at risk and may even be gaining the advantage. It is an odd conclusion, considering the impact of these attacks and it is, in any case not supported by recent evidence of US casualties.

As mentioned in earlier articles in this series, one of the features of US soldiering in Iraq in recent months has been the combination of the use of armoured vehicles with soldiers wearing helmets and body armour. A remarkable effect of this has been the way in which a much-reduced death rate has been accompanied by a relative increase in serious but survivable injuries, mostly to limbs (Robert Schlesinger, “Combat Wounds Proving Less Deadly”, Boston Globe, 31 August 2003). This has resulted in a major programme of medical treatment which, when examined in detail, gives a much clearer idea of the problems facing the US army in Iraq.

Soldiers injured in combat or through accidents are initially treated and stabilised at medical centres in Iraq or at the regional medical centre at Landstuhl in Germany. From there they are flown in C17 transport aircraft to the Andrews Air Base outside Washington for treatment either at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington or the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda.

The scale of the operation is considerable and largely unrecognised (but see Vernon Loeb: “Number of Wounded in Action on Rise”, Washington Post, 2 September 2003). Virtually every night a C-17 arrives at Andrews with more casualties. Last Thursday (28 August), a plane arrived with forty-four patients, and the following night another was due with a further thirty-six, twelve of them on stretchers.

On arrival at the base, the most seriously wounded are transferred in a fleet of ambulances to the hospitals and others stay at the base pending transport to their own army and marine camp medical centres across the country. To cope with the influx, a “contingency aeromedical staging facility” has even had to be created at Andrews, taking over a community centre and an indoor sports hall.

According to Central Command, 1,325 soldiers and marines have been injured sufficiently seriously to be airlifted back to the United States, with 1,124 of these being combat injuries and the remaining 301 being hurt in vehicle crashes or other accidents. In addition, more than 4,500 troops have been flown back because of physical or mental illness. There does not appear to be any record of lesser combat injuries in Iraq where people are treated and then return to duty.

In the period since 1 May 2003, when President Bush famously declared, on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln, that major combat operations in Iraq were over, 574 troops have been wounded, more than in the war itself and its immediate aftermath. Moreover, there has been a sharp increase in combat injuries in recent weeks, with an average of almost ten each day throughout August.

Can America share the burden?

One of the main effects of this predicament of a worsening security environment is that the Bush administration is reluctantly having to reconsider its attitude to the United Nations, even to the extent of allowing UN officials a modestly greater role in Iraq in return for peacekeeping commitments from countries such as India, Bangladesh, Turkey and Pakistan. Part of the reason is the pressure beginning to come from Congress as the autumn session commences and members of the Senate and the House return from their constituencies with reports of increasing unease.

Even more relevant is the pressure coming from the military themselves. The current political, military and economic control of Iraq is essentially delegated to the Pentagon, not the state department, and the civilian leadership in the Pentagon, most notably Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz, continues to maintain control while holding the view that no more troops are required and that an increased role for the UN is an unacceptable complication. What is significant, though, is that this view is simply not shared by the military, with some of the most senior commanders actively seeking a more substantial UN involvement.

According to the Washington Post (Mike Allen and Vernon Loeb, “US Wants Larger UN Role in Iraq”, 3 September 2003), the vice-chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine Corps General Peter Pace, is lobbying administration figures. According to an official quoted in the paper, the head of Central Command, General John Abizaid, and even the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff himself, General Richard Myers have been “strongly engaged in the internationalisation effort, to include a new U.N. resolution”.

In seeking to “internationalise” the response, the Bush administration faces four problems. The first is the attitude of Security Council members such as France and Russia, originally opposed to the war and unlikely to support any new resolution unless they benefit themselves. Second, the antagonism to the United States among UN bureaucrats in New York, still angry and bitter at the attack on the Baghdad UN headquarters, especially the killing of the widely-respected Sergio Vieira de Mello.

A third problem is that the United States is currently forced to limit the handover to international troops already in Iraq. Prior to the Najaf atrocity, the United States was due to handover security powers from the Marines in southern Iraq to an international force controlled by the Poles, with further sizeable contingents from Spain and Ukraine. The transfer in Najaf itself has been postponed and the Marines will now remain there for at least two weeks and possibly longer.

Fourth, and perhaps most important of all, is the level of violence towards American troops. The extent of this is demonstrated by the injuries cited above. It may not be widely recognised in the general media but is certainly understood by governments of those countries who would be asked to contribute. Furthermore, the recent killing of soldiers from Britain and Denmark demonstrates that other forces would also be targeted – what may be described as a peacekeeping role could easily turn into a costly counter-insurgency war for the other countries as well as the United States.

In the final analysis, Washington will probably be able to contrive a compromise resolution at the UN Security Council prior to George Bush’s speech to the General Assembly later in the month, and it is also likely that some extra international troops will be deployed to the more stable parts of Iraq. Even so, it will most likely be on a scale much smaller than Washington would wish, and it will be US troops who will remain at the centre of the conflict.

Given the extent and persistence of the attacks they are now facing, their predicament will not be seriously diminished by a marginally increased international role. The end result is likely to be the steady rise of the Iraq war up the domestic political agenda just as the 2004 presidential election starts to get under way.

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