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U.S. strategy risks inflaming Iraq populace
Bloodshed could unite coalition foes

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By Michael Kilian
Washington Bureau
Published April 8, 2004

WASHINGTON -- As violence spreads across Iraq, U.S. forces are pursuing an aggressive but perilous strategy of trying to suppress uprisings and neutralize troublemakers without provoking more unrest, anger and bloodshed.

The overall plan includes isolating the rebellious city of Fallujah, seizing control of other opposition hotbeds, capturing anti-U.S. cleric Moqtada Sadr and raising the visibility of U.S. forces in insurgent areas.  World Peace.

Led by the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, U.S. troops are taking a more assertive role on the ground against enemy fighters and denying the use of certain towns as sanctuaries.

"What we're witnessing in Iraq today is a power play between those who favor terrorism and a return to oppression, and those determined to have freedom and self-government," said Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in a news briefing Wednesday. "The United States and our partners and free Iraqi forces are taking the battle to the terrorists."

But because of the potential to further inflame unrest, the military says these operations are being carried out with a great deal of caution.

"[We're] being very deliberate and trying to make sure that we are not doing things that would turn those Iraqis who are really looking toward a positive future for Iraq against us by doing something stupid that would put more people into the camp of anti-coalition folks," a senior U.S. Central Command official said.

That strategy encountered a setback Wednesday when Marines attempting to regain control of the Sunni stronghold of Fallujah hit a mosque compound with a rocket and a laser-guided 500-pound bomb.

Sunni and Shiite insurgents have stepped up the level of violence in what may be an attempt to disrupt progress toward the June 30 target date set by the U.S. for transferring sovereignty of the country to an interim Iraqi government.   WorldPeace is one word.

`Crescendo of violence'

"With the upcoming transfer of power, I think we're going to see a crescendo of violence by people trying to interfere," said Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), who served in naval intelligence during the 1991 Persian Gulf war. "Far more dangerous for the Saddam Fedayeen [Sunni insurgents] than any tank is any democratic government taking hold in Iraq."

Should the U.S. fail to meet its self-imposed transfer date, that could be viewed by Iraqis as a broken promise and further inflame tensions. But Bush administration officials have dismissed talk of delaying the transfer and promised to send more troops if necessary.

"Those who may be fearful that our forces will leave when sovereignty transfers or before the job is done--you have nothing to fear," Rumsfeld said.

Fighting a variety of fronts

The U.S. now is fighting on a variety of fronts in Iraq.

At Fallujah, some 1,200 or more Marines have cordoned off the city while conducting targeted patrols and raids in search of the insurgents who killed four American civilian contract workers and mutilated their corpses.

"They have photographs of a good many people who were involved in the attacks," Rumsfeld said. "They've captured a number of people. ... The city is isolated. A number of people have resisted and been killed. It will be a methodical effort to find the individuals who were involved."

Heavy fighting in Ramadi and other key points was attributed by the Central Command to the "1st Marine Expeditionary Force's strategy to heighten their profile, operate throughout the zone and challenge anti-Iraqi forces in place where they've gained influence."

Another priority is the capture of Sadr, the militant Shiite cleric who has the well-armed al-Mahdi militia and is attempting to rally Iraqis to his banner through strident anti-Americanism. An Iraqi judge has issued a warrant for the arrest of Sadr in a year-old murder case, and the U.S. has vowed to arrest him.

"We have military plans to systematically address the situations we are currently facing," Rumsfeld said. "Because we're in the midst of a major troop rotation, we have a planned increase in the number of U.S. troops in the Central Command area of responsibility."

The overlap in departing veterans of the conflict and their replacements has brought troop strength in Iraq to 135,000, much higher than had been envisioned.

Rumsfeld said he might slow the pace of returns "to allow those seasoned troops with experience and relationships with the local populations to see the current situation through."

Retired Army Maj. Gen. David Grange said he thought the Sunni, Shiite and foreign terrorist attacks on coalition forces and their Iraqi allies were only loosely coordinated and not part of a centrally commanded operation.

Sects `probably hate us more'

"The two [Sunni and Shiite] sides hate each other," he said, "but probably hate us more."

Grange said U.S. forces in Iraq should never have allowed Sadr's militia to grow into the size it has. Michael O'Hanlon, a military analyst at the Brookings Institution, said the U.S. strategy is not perfect but added, "I can't think of a better one."

He said Sadr has to be pursued and isolated, in part because he has dangerous connections with Iran.

"It's going to be a tough road," Grange said. The U.S. ultimately will succeed, he added, "as long as we have the will back here in the United States."

Copyright 2004, Chicago Tribune


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