White House in tough PR battle for Iraq

07 November 2003
Attacks: Increasing resistance at home and abroad

US politicians and newspapers alike are increasingly making use of the 'V' word, as stiffening resistance to coalition forces in Iraq is likened to the violence of the early days of the Vietnam conflict. The parallel is not entirely convincing. In South Vietnam, US troops faced not only local Viet Cong insurgents, but also the North Vietnamese regular army. But historical allusions reflect the growing public anxiety in the US about the ongoing occupation of Iraq, and concerns in the Republican party about its effect on presidential elections in late 2004. Opinion polls in early November revealed that 51 per cent of US voters now disapprove of the way the administration is handling the aftermath of the invasion, while a majority also support a full or partial troop withdrawal.

President Bush vowed on 3 November that the coalition would not run from what he called its 'vital mission in Iraq', in his first public reaction to an attack on an army helicopter the previous day that killed 15 US troops. The Chinook aircraft was shot down near Fallujah as it was heading for Baghdad airport to transfer soldiers going on leave.

The security situation continues to deteriorate in the main cities, as the focus of attacks widens from US military targets to include Iraqi civil institutions and international organisations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, which lost two staff when its Baghdad headquarters were targeted in a wave of suicide bombings on 27 October. The Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) headquarters in the city came under mortar attack for the second day on 4 November, but no casualties were reported.

The challenge to local authorities is also growing, with gunmen shooting dead two Iraqi judges in Najaf and Mosul on 3 and 4 November respectively. The credibility of the interim Iraqi authority has been shaken by the arrest and imprisonment of the former governor of Najaf, Haydar Abdul Munim, who was appointed by US authorities after the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime. Munim was gaoled for 14 years on 4 November after being found guilty of corruption, extortion and false imprisonment.

The withdrawal of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force in September has placed most of the security burden on the shoulders of the regular US army, and despite Washington's assurances that it will stand firm in Iraq, the actual number of soldiers on the ground is likely to diminish. General Peter Pace, vice-chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress on 5 November that thousands of active duty and part-time National Guard and reserve troops would be sent to Iraq in 2004. However, under a new rotation plan, the number of troops serving in the country would be reduced from 132,000 to 100,000 within six months' time, he said.

US authorities have agreed 'in principle' to the establishment of an Iraqi anti-insurgency security force, but to date no concrete plans have been drawn up. 'We cannot establish security in Iraq unless it is given to the Iraqis,' Jalal Talabani, the Kurdish leader who holds the rotating presidency of the governing council, said on 4 November. 'We asked the CPA to give this matter to us. It agreed in principle and we hope to get the full remit from the CPA.'

The Bush administration gained a brief domestic boost when the US Senate on 3 November passed an $87,500 million bill for continuing military operations and aid in Iraq and Afghanistan, despite words of concern regarding the White House's position on Iraq. The bill, titled the Emergency Supplemental Appropriations Act for Defence and for the Reconstruction of Iraq and Afghanistan, 2004, will also include funds for Iraqi relief and reconstruction.

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