Quickening the Tempo in Iraq

By DAVID BROOKS

New York Times

October 6, 2004

The pace of events seems to be quickening in Iraq. When I spoke to administration officials a few weeks ago, I got the sense that the U.S. and the Iraqi governments had no choice but to bide their time so they could train more Iraqi troops and work out political deals with wavering tribal leaders.

The prevailing view, often ascribed to Robert Blackwill of the National Security Council, was that a U.S.-dominated offensive would alienate more Iraqis than it would pacify. A major military attack did not seem likely until early winter.

But even then, powerful players were getting restive. As early as July, Colin Powell was arguing that it was simply unacceptable to permit cities like Falluja to remain as sanctuaries that terrorists could use to launch nationwide terrorist assaults. His old rival Donald Rumsfeld agreed with him on this one.

The defense secretary had been one of those most unhappy that the Marines had not taken control of Falluja in April when they had the chance.

And over the past few weeks the "take back the cities more quickly" argument seems to have gained ground. Kids are being blown up on the streets. There is a widening sense that while Iraqis may resent Americans' flexing their muscles, what they resent more is the fact that they can't walk down the street safely. And most important, the Iraqi interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi, has entered the fray.

Administration officials smile when they talk about Allawi, then marvel at how aggressive he is. Allawi believes that his government has to establish its authority if it, or any future government, is to do its job.

So an Iraqi-U.S. military offensive took back Samarra, and Rumsfeld said yesterday that Samarra is a model for what is about to happen in other towns in Iraq.

I asked Rumsfeld yesterday how decisions like the one to take back Samarra are made. Are Iraqis like Allawi really deciding when and where Americans fight?

He described a decision-making process that has no formal structure, but involves constant consultations, involving State Department types like Ambassador John Negroponte, military types like Gen. George Casey and Lt. Gen. Thomas Metz, and a raft of Iraqi officials. It also involves the big Washington honchos like Powell, Rumsfeld and Bush.

It was clear from our conversation (and from the way other administration officials talk about decision-making in Iraq) that the charge that Allawi is a puppet is just absurd. Allawi has the best feel for which Iraqi community or faction has to be catered to on any given day, and how best to reach over and get some Sunni support for the government. Moreover, Rumsfeld says the goal is to give Iraqis the room to make their own decisions: "The worst thing we can do is smother them."

Deciding where to go next depends on a complicated set of calculations. Are there enough Iraqi troops to hold a city once it is retaken? (American troops can take major roles in reclaiming towns in Sunni areas, but policing them afterward is another matter.) Where does the nascent Iraqi intelligence service have the best information? How will an offensive in this or that city affect the prospects of holding elections?

It's clear that Allawi and the Americans are looking for places where they can rack up victories (assuming they hold onto the one in Samarra). Most of the public conversation centers on retaking Falluja eventually, but Rumsfeld directed our interview to the pacification of Baghdad. "Baghdad is the big casino," he said. "You don't have Baghdad, you don't have Iraq."

Will this new, more aggressive mind-set improve things? There's an awful lot of pessimism around, including within the Pentagon, among people who know a lot about this stuff.

I know only three (contradictory) things. Every few weeks I hear about a new twist in American strategy or tactics. It always seems promising, but conditions don't improve. On the other hand, officials in this administration don't have a thought in their heads about not sticking this out.

Finally, it may not be long before we can realistically set our goals. The coming elections and the battles for the cities will either put Iraq on a path to normalcy or introduce us to some new hell. Yesterday, Rumsfeld said Iraq had "a crack" at being a success. At least he's not overhyping.