Time on U.S. military's side in Iraq

An AP News Analysis

Posted: Wednesday, November 05, 2003

WASHINGTON As bad as the news from Iraq sometimes seems, the continuing attacks and rising American death toll may not mean much in the military scheme of things.

''In terms of security, time is on our side,'' says Michael O'Hanlon of The Brookings Institution.

The battle for public support in Iraq and in the United States is another thing. And on that score, experts inside and out of the Pentagon say, it's probably time to start getting nervous.

Military commanders have said for months, and still maintain after Sunday's worst one-day combat toll since March, that the attacks now skyrocketing to some three dozen daily are militarily insignificant, noted Pentagon spokesperson Lt. Col. Jim Cassella.

That means they have not stopped the U.S.-led occupation force from continuing its work toward stabilizing the country, rebuilding the economy and creating a new government.

Opposition fighters shot down a Chinook transport helicopter Sunday, killing or injuring all of some three dozen troops aboard; still, hundreds of other aircraft and crews continued their work elsewhere in the country. Dozens of troops have been killed by roadside ambushes and bombings in recent months; others continue raiding weapons caches, capturing remnants of ousted President Saddam Hussein's government and performing dozens of other missions.

It's hard to find anyone inside or outside the Defense Department who thinks several thousand poorly organized Saddam loyalists and several hundred foreign fighters can militarily defeat the almost 250,000-member coalition and Iraqi forces now under arms in Iraq.

''I don't believe the resistance has the ability to do too many more dramatic things'' like Sunday's helicopter shoot-down, said O'Hanlon.

He noted occupation forces are working to train Iraqis quickly to take over security in the country. Though they're not close, they're on the right path, he said, with some 85,000 Iraqis now working as police, customs agents and security guards.

Still, wars are not won on battlefields alone.

If recent attacks and other failings cause Iraqis and Americans to lose faith in the campaign, ''The bad guys will win,'' said James Lindsay of the Council on Foreign Relations.

''Right now the Bush administration is in a struggle for hearts and minds both in Iraq and at home,'' Lindsay said.

''But their tendency is to oversell how well things are going. Then when bad things happen, the public feels these guys don't know what they're talking about.''

President Bush said Monday that Iraqi insurgents miscalculate if they believe they can bring the foreign military presence to an end. ''America will never run,'' he said.

America's generals, however, seasoned by experience in Vietnam, Somalia and other unsuccessful ventures, know that the staying power of the world's most powerful military depends to a large extent on the will of the American people.

The missile strike on the Chinook occurred as an ABC-Washington Post poll found, for the first time, that more than half 51 percent of those surveyed disapprove of the way Bush is handling Iraq.

Late last month, a CBS News poll found half those surveyed said events in Iraq are out of control; 39 percent said the U.S. military was in control there.

As for Iraqi support, O'Hanlon said slower-than-hoped-for progress in resuscitating their economy and improving Iraqis' quality of life is worrisome.

If average Iraqis begin to believe American forces cannot deliver the Iraq that was promised, or that Americans lack the will to follow through, they could begin to hedge their bets and cooperate less with occupation forces.

''I'm not sure helicopter attacks matter as much as the way Iraqis themselves feel their own lives are going,'' O'Hanlon said. ''And on that, I'm not sure I would say categorically that time is on our side. On the whole, I'm guardedly optimistic, but nervous.''

Americans are willing to pay a price in Iraq if they believe the administration has an effective plan for victory, Lindsay said.

''But the longer this goes on with the administration saying things are getting better, and then we have news bulletins with 16 dead or five dead, then we have a problem,'' he said.

If Americans come to feel U.S. lives are being lost for too little in return, they'll want a withdrawal, analysts said.

''Wars are fought for a political end,'' said Lindsay. ''And if you lose political support, you are going to lose, regardless of what the body count is.''

Pauline Jelinek has covered foreign affairs and military issues for The Associated Press for 15 years.

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