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Commentary ::
Big Money wants Iraq nonsense to End
29 Apr 2004
"US military behaviour often seems to be choosing the worst aspects of several bad options and combining them."
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Time to limit the damage in Iraq
April 30 2004

LONDON - Nine weeks before the scheduled handover of limited sovereignty to some form of Iraqi administration, the US-led occupation in Baghdad needs to tread very carefully indeed. The misjudgments of Paul Bremer, the US administrator, and his Pentagon masters, far from steering Iraq towards freedom and democracy, have brought it to just beyond the brink of anarchy.

After so many blunders, there are no obviously good options left. US military behaviour, however, often seems to be choosing the worst aspects of several bad options and combining them. The sieges of Falluja and Najaf are cases in point, even though last night brought welcome news of a phased lifting of the former.

The bloodshed in Falluja began a year ago when US troops shot dead 15 demonstrators. Since then, US occupation forces have been unable to defeat an insurgency their actions appear to have strengthened and spread. Their room for manoeuvre was narrower still after the grisly lynching of four US security contractors in apparent reprisal for a bloody raid. At that point they could either admit they did not control the territory, at the risk of signalling weakness and an aversion to casualties; or they could go in with decisive force, risking heavy civilian casualties, new levels of local rage and international condemnation. What they did - using attack helicopters, warplanes, rockets, howitzers and Gatling guns - was kill hundreds of civilians without retaking the city.

Mr Bremer's decision, moreover, to choose that moment to move against Moqtada al-Sadr - a Shia Muslim cleric of zero theological standing hitherto seen as little more than a hooligan - was truly remarkable. He managed to unite Shia and Sunni Muslims in Iraq for the first time in generations, and made Mr Sadr a hero in the country and the region.

It is time to limit the damage.

First, under no circumstances should US troops go into the shrine city of Najaf after Mr Sadr. That would ignite the Shia south and probably spark a wave of reprisals around the world. Instead, the occupiers should show the same prudence they appear to be belatedly displaying in Falluja.

Second, as Kofi Annan, United Nations secretary-general, and Lakdar Brahimi, his Iraq envoy, said this week, the US, as the occupying power, must exercise restraint. True, the Americans did not do in Falluja what the Russians did in Grozny in 1999. But the scale of casualties there was still more than enough to make it impossible for Iraqi allies to stand alongside them.

That being the case, it is in everyone's but especially Iraqis' interest that the occupation hands over real decision-making power to the transitional government Mr Brahimi is working to create. As part of that, the US should agree to constraints on major military operations in Iraq. No occupation will ever be able to resolve Iraq's many problems; Iraqis may be able to.
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