Crunch Time in Baghdad
April 06, 2004
The Wall Street Journal
Review and Outlook
The next few days in Iraq may be the most critical since President Bush ordered the invasion a year ago. Millions of Iraqis, and millions of Americans, are waiting to see if the U.S. is still fighting in Iraq to win.
Marines were digging in around Fallujah yesterday, in anticipation of a military response to last week's mutilation of four U.S. civilians in that part of the Sunni Triangle. Meanwhile, the coalition announced that an Iraqi judge had issued a murder arrest warrant for the Shiite Muslim cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, who ordered the riots on Sunday that resulted in the deaths of eight Americans and a Salvadoran. If Mr. Bush fails to show that there is a price to pay for killing Americans, he might as well bring everyone home today.
Americans will support their President in war -- far more than liberal elites appreciate. But they won't support a President who isn't fighting with enough force and the right strategy to prevail. Unlike Mr. Bush's determination to topple Saddam Hussein, the transition back to Iraqi rule has been marked in recent months by drift and indecision. Especially in the runup to the transfer of power on June 30, the worst Iraqis are rushing in to exploit this uncertainty.
What's needed now is a reassertion of U.S. resolve, notably on security but also on the transition to Iraqi sovereignty, and even if it means no drawdown of American forces any time soon. The coalition had hoped to turn over more of this task to Iraqis, and this remains both desirable and inevitable. But they clearly aren't yet up to that task in the face of well-armed insurgents or private militias.
Partly this is America's fault for not arming Iraqis on our side with enough firepower soon enough. The State Department (rather than the Pentagon) is responsible for disbursing the small arms that are now available, while Congress's desire to micromanage Defense procurement has delayed contracts from being let for more and better equipment. If Senate soundbite kibbitzers Richard Lugar and Joe Biden want to be constructive, this is a problem they could work on. In the meantime, U.S. forces will have to re-enter such cities and towns as Fallujah and work with Iraqis friendly to the coalition to restore order and kill or arrest those who target Americans.
This has to include Mr. Sadr. The young cleric has been stirring trouble for months, but with Sunday's riots he has crossed a line that makes him an urgent threat to the coalition and any new Iraqi government. Yesterday's judicial warrant implicates him in the mob slaying of another Shiite leader, the moderate Abdel-Majid al-Khoei, shortly after he had returned to Najaf from exile in London in April 2003.
Unlike Grand Ayatollah Sistani, Mr. Sadr never mentions the word "democracy" in his fatwas and talks openly of creating an Iranian-style Islamic Republic in Iraq. Mr. Sadr has visited Tehran since the fall of Saddam, and his Mahdi militia is almost certainly financed and trained by Iranians. Revolutionary Guards may be instigating some of the current unrest. As recently as last Friday, Mr. Sadr declared that "I am the beating arm for Hezbollah and Hamas here in Iraq." Hezbollah has been financed by Iran for years.
Having let Mr. Sadr's militia grow, the coalition now has no choice but to break it up. It should also warn the Dawa Islamic political party that its dealings with Iran won't be tolerated. As for Tehran, we would hope the Sadr uprising puts to rest the illusion that the mullahs can be appeased. As Bernard Lewis teaches, Middle Eastern leaders interpret American restraint as weakness. Iran's mullahs fear a Muslim democracy in Iraq because it is a direct threat to their own rule. If warnings to Tehran from Washington don't impress them, perhaps some cruise missiles aimed at the Bushehr nuclear site will concentrate their minds.
Proof of U.S. resolve is especially important as the transfer of sovereignty on June 30 nears. Millions of Iraqis are grateful for their liberation from Saddam and are willing to help us finish the job. But too many Iraqis already suspect that June 30 has more to do with our elections than with theirs. If they now see the U.S. failing to respond forcefully to the past week's unrest, they will conclude that the Americans are preparing to leave. Then the mayhem and jockeying for power will only get worse.
Yesterday, Mr. Bush reiterated his support for the June 30 transfer. But the timing is less important than the fact that the U.S. still has no plan for what will happen on that date. The current non-plan is for U.S. regent L. Paul Bremer to toss the ball to U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi and hope he can figure it out.
With elections put off for some months anyway, the default transfer plan will probably involve retaining the Iraqi Governing Council in some form. The coalition is better off doing this on its own and leaving the U.N. out of it. It isn't as if Kofi Annan is offering any troops, and Mr. Brahimi -- a Sunni Arab nationalist close to nations that coddled Saddam -- makes Shiites nervous. This latest Bush Administration dance with the U.N. is just one more signal to many Iraqis that the U.S. is eager to get out.
While we're at it, Mr. Bush can send an important signal with his choice of who should succeed Mr. Bremer as U.S. ambassador to Iraq. The worst choice would be a career diplomat. We'd recommend Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy Defense secretary, who has his own reputational stake in Iraq's success and would be seen by Iraqis as someone committed for the long haul. He also wouldn't need on-the-job training. Rudy Giuliani would also be a serious choice.
We trust that Mr. Bush knows that his reaction to Fallujah and Mr. Sadr matters far more to his re-election prospects than does Richard Clarke's book tour. Americans realize that the current 20-20 Beltway hindsight over 9/11 is mostly political. But they also know that Iraq was Mr. Bush's undertaking, and they will hold him responsible for any failure of will. http://online.wsj.com/public/us