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Thu Sep 16 11:22:47 PDT 2004
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SECURITY FIRST, SEWERS LATER
Sep 16th 2004
As another round of bloodshed in Iraq leaves almost 70 dead, the Bush
administration announces plans to shift billions of dollars of
reconstruction funding towards improving security. But can the country
be stabilised in time for January's elections?
THE huge car bomb that ripped through a crowded market on Baghdad's
Haifa Street on Tuesday September 14th was the most deadly attack in
Iraq's capital in six months: it killed 47, injured 114 and left the
streets strewn with body parts. Elsewhere on the same day, 12 were
killed when gunmen opened fire on Iraqi policemen in Baquba, 10 were
killed in clashes in Ramadi, and an American soldier was shot dead in
Mosul. Insurgents' attacks cut off Iraq's northern oil-exporting
pipeline and disrupted the electricity supply in large parts of the
country. While President George Bush and his Democratic challenger,
John Kerry, argued over whether Iraq's security situation is getting
better or worse, the Bush administration announced plans to shift
around $3 billion of American funding for Iraqi reconstruction towards
measures to boost security. If there had been any hopes that the
violence was set to die down after last month's ending of the bloody
confrontation between coalition forces and militants in Najaf, then
those hopes have been dashed.
Late last year, America created an $18.4 billion Iraq Relief and
Reconstruction Fund, much of which was intended to improve the
country's devastated infrastructure--in particular, water, sewerage and
electricity supplies. But the continued insurgency and a spate of
kidnappings and executions have halted many such projects. Thus, so
far, America has been able to spend only a little over $1 billion of
the fund. So, on Tuesday, the State Department announced a plan to
divert around $3 billion of the money from infrastructure projects
towards reinforcing Iraq's security, including measures to reduce the
high unemployment that leaves so many young Iraqis idle, and thus more
easily tempted to take up arms with the rebels.
The State Department said that, with the extra money, 45,000 more Iraqi
police would be recruited, plus 16,000 border guards and a further 20
brigades of the Iraqi national guard. The training of the re-formed
Iraqi security forces would be speeded up, though progress on this
depends on persuading America's NATO allies to provide the training. On
Tuesday, diplomats told Reuters news agency that the alliance's member
countries were close to an accord that would see the commander of the
American-led occupation force in Iraq doubling up as head of the NATO
In recent days, Mr Kerry has stepped up his attacks on Mr Bush over his
handling of Iraq. On Tuesday, he said that the president was failing to
tell the truth about the worsening security situation there. Mr Bush,
in turn, accuses Mr Kerry of shifting his views on Iraq out of
political expediency. On Wednesday, the British army's commanding
officer, General Sir Mike Jackson, told the BBC during a visit to
Baghdad that the violence in Iraq was not escalating but was "pretty
much unchanged". Even if true, however, it is hardly encouraging that
the insurgency shows little sign of abating, 18 months after Saddam
Hussein was toppled.
One reason for the latest upsurge in attacks is that in recent days
American forces have launched operations to retake towns, such as
Fallujah and Ramadi, that have become dominated by insurgents.
Tuesday's casualties in Ramadi reportedly came as rebels opened fire on
American tanks entering the city. In April, American-led troops
effectively abandoned Fallujah to the Sunni Muslim rebels based there,
after attempts to take full control of the city had led to heavy
Though Iraq's interim prime minister, Iyad Allawi, has apparently given
approval for the operation to retake the rebel-held towns, the
operation is risky. Unless they are recaptured swiftly and relatively
bloodlessly, popular anger at civilian casualties may once again force
the Americans to back off. That would strengthen the insurgents while
undermining Mr Allawi's authority.
Apart from fighting back, the rebels are also doing their utmost to
make it impossible for Iraq to hold the national elections that are due
in January. In a BBC interview on Wednesday, Kofi Annan, the United
Nations' secretary-general, reiterated his worries that the continuing
violence could make it impossible to conduct the elections. (He also
annoyed America and its allies by asserting that the Iraq invasion had
been illegal.) Earlier this week, Iraq's interim president, Ghazi
al-Yawar, had said that the elections should go ahead unless the UN
Mr Allawi and American officials in Iraq argue that, since the
insurgency is mainly concentrated in certain areas of Baghdad and a few
towns west of the capital, the election could go ahead in the rest of
the country, and would be legitimate even if the rebel strongholds did
not take part. But they will have to convince, among others, the
spiritual leader of Iraq's Shia Muslim majority, Grand Ayatollah Ali
al-Sistani, who has thus far insisted on full democratic participation.
Even if Mr Sistani does bless a partial vote, and the resulting
parliament and government win acceptance by a majority of Iraqis, the
insurgents are unlikely to be won over.
Besides being keen to press ahead with the Iraqi elections, Mr Bush is
clearly concerned at how the situation in Iraq may affect his own
encounter with the voters, in November. Mr Kerry has begun saying in
his campaign speeches that the American taxpayers' money spent on the
Iraq war--$200 billion, he reckons--ought to have been spent on
domestic programmes. When it is pointed out to the Democratic
challenger that he voted to give Mr Bush authorisation to conduct the
war, his retort is that he would have done a better job of bringing in
allies to join the coalition, and thus America would not have had to
shoulder so much of the cost.
Though Mr Bush's ratings on his handling of Iraq have been negative in
recent polls, Mr Kerry has so far failed to convince American voters
that he could do any better. An ABC/WASHINGTON POST poll last week gave
the president a resounding 22-point lead on the question: "Who do you
trust to do a better job handling the situation in Iraq?"
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