Death toll forces US to rethink Iraq strategy

20 November 2003
President Bush had already convened an urgent meeting of his national security advisers and recalled Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) administrator Paul Bremer to Washington when news reached the White House on 12 November of yet another bombing in Iraq. Once again, the target was one of the more friendly faces of the coalition administration, and once again the death toll was high. A truck bomb in the southern city of Nasiriyah killed nine Iraqis and at least 18 Italian service personnel when it slammed into the side of the local police headquarters. The attack marked Italy's single largest loss of military personnel since the Second World War.

In a sign that the spate of recent attacks has dampened the enthusiasm of US allies for the occupation, Japan shortly afterwards announced that it was postponing sending any troops to Iraq until the security situation improved. Turkey has also announced it no longer plans to deploy troops across the border, although this may come as a relief to Kurdish authorities in the north.

The main focus of the rethink is the detailed 'seven steps to sovereignty' plan launched by Bremer, under which the CPA would only transfer full authority to Iraqis after a constitution has been drafted and approved by a referendum and national elections have been held. As the UN deadline of 15 December approaches for an agreement on an election timetable, Washington is now proposing to speed up the process.

The gradual deterioration of relations with the interim Iraqi governing council and local authorities will not make it an easy task. US forces on 10 November clashed for the second time with fighters from the former Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is in the process of transforming its party name and structure. The following day, in the Shiite district of Sadr in Baghdad, an American soldier shot and killed the US-appointed district mayor, Mohammed Gazi al-Kaabi, following a confrontation with US troops in the council compound. In a sign of the military's growing frustration with the security situation, the US Air Force adopted a major change in strategy on 13 November by bombing a number of suspected insurgency targets in Baghdad from the air.

Military analysts have pointed both to the increase in co-ordinated attacks on foreign targets in Iraq and to a worrying rise in sectarian violence across the country. Baghdad has seen several drive-by shootings in recent weeks, apparently between armed Shia and Sunni factions, while there have been a number of sectarian attacks in the more stable northern and southern regions. A bomb blast in Basra on 11 November killed three Iraqis, while the previous day in Mosul a group of gunmen shot and wounded a senior executive of a local oil company. US officials in Iraq continue to place the blame for the security situation on foreign fighters - the coalition announced on 11 November that it was holding 20 suspected Al-Qaeda operatives - and Washington continues to accuse both Iran and Syria of failing to police their borders.

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