WASHINGTON - With some Baghdad neighborhoods still not safe and huge throngs of Shiite Muslims calling for U.S. forces to leave, a rising chorus of critics say the Bush administration misjudged the potential for a dangerous power vacuum in Iraq.
Moreover, critics say the administration failed to deploy enough troops and the right mix of forces to provide security in Iraq and restore basic services, allowing anti-democratic forces in the country to emerge and meet those critical needs.
"There are not sufficient troops," said Rep. Jim Kolbe, an Arizona Republican, who was in Kuwait last week meeting with U.S. Agency for International Development officials and humanitarian groups. "There were sufficient troops to win the war but not sufficient troops to win the peace."
Kanan Makiya, a prominent Iraqi exile who advises the Bush administration and recently returned from the Iraqi city of Nasiriyah, said the situation in the south is "very messy and complicated." The most pressing need is a U.S.-trained Iraqi force that can carry the administration's message of a new democratic state, a force that Makiya said should have been in place soon after Baghdad fell.
"We have very, very few Iraqis who are, in fact, inside Iraqi cities, carrying the values of the coalition," he said this week in a National Press Club speech.
Dale R. Davis, a former Marine counterintelligence officer and the director of international programs at the Virginia Military Institute, said the U.S.-led coalition had enough combat forces to topple Saddam Hussein's regime but not the military police, civil affairs officers, engineers and water purification experts required to stabilize the country and begin returning it to normality. As a result, in many cases the mosques filled the security and services needs of ordinary Iraqis, accruing political clout as they did so.
"We could be allowing certain elements to gain political footholds that we would prefer they not have," said Davis, a view privately echoed by some military officers in the Pentagon, who agree that the number and mix of forces are insufficient.
There are between 125,000 to 130,000 U.S. ground troops inside Iraq, most of them Army soldiers, along with about 22,000 British troops. An additional 25,000 to 30,000 U.S. troops are heading into the country. This latest contingent includes military police and other support units, officials said.
Besides the British, an undetermined number of foreign troops and workers either are on the way or their deployment nearing approval by their governments to help stabilize Iraq and rebuild the country, defense officials said. But Kolbe said that may take too long and called for more U.S. troops, though he was uncertain how many would be needed.
Lt. Gen. David McKiernan, commander of the U.S. ground forces, told reporters this week that he has a large enough force to begin the shift from combat operations to peacekeeping.
"I am satisfied that the forces are here and are continuing to flow here that will allow me to ... provide a degree, a certain degree of stability and security in Iraq as we transition back to Iraqis in control of their own country," he said. "I would caveat that, though, by reminding everyone that there aren't enough soldiers or Marines to guard every street corner and every facility in Iraq, so there's some risk-taking in some areas."
How many U.S. troops will remain in the country in the coming weeks and months is unclear, said defense officials. Some Army units, such as the 3rd Infantry Division from Fort Stewart, Ga., are expected to leave as others arrive, among them the 4th Infantry Division from Fort Hood, Texas. One Pentagon planner said there is discussion now about whether to keep three divisions, roughly 75,000 troops, or four divisions, about 100,000, in the country.
Before the war started, Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, the Army's chief of staff, said that "several hundred thousand" troops would be needed for occupation duty, while Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said at the time that the number was "wildly off the mark."
In northern Iraq, additional U.S. forces have arrived in Mosul, the scene of earlier skirmishes with Marines and feuding between Arab and Kurdish populations. Thousands of soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division are beginning to provide security in and around the city of 1.5 million, greatly expanding the U.S. presence.
The Mosul situation is uncertain as Hussein's Baath Party and military were not crushed in the city as they were in other parts of the country, one U.S. officer stationed there said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"What it needs right now - according to all the businessmen, civil servants, and hospital and university administrators - is security, and we will endeavor to establish that," the officer said. "Mosul is a unique city in Iraq, given its ethnic mix, and we'll have to work hard to get everyone to cooperate, make way together, reconcile with each other, be patient and be tolerant."
Among those helping secure the area is a company of soldiers from Albania, the officer said.
The security situation is a particular problem in southern Iraq, an area dominated by the country's largest ethnic group, the Shiites, who account for 60 percent of the population. Brutally repressed under Hussein, hundreds of thousands of Shiites gathered this week in Karbala to celebrate one of their most important holy days, calling for a Muslim state and demanding U.S. troops go home.
What is desperately needed in the country now is an Iraqi force trained by U.S. officials, said Makiya, who is a close associate of Ahmad Chalabi, leader of the Iraqi National Congress, an umbrella organization of exiles.
Chalabi, who was recently airlifted by the U.S. military into Iraq along with hundreds of his compatriots, has support among top Pentagon officials but is viewed with skepticism by the CIA and State Department, who question whether a man who fled Iraq in 1958 has any standing among the population.
But Makiya said one group inside Iraq that is friendly to the U.S.-led forces is the Free Iraqi Forces, about 600 Iraqi exiles formed by Chalabi. "This force needs to be massively increased, trained. This whole process has to go on together. It must become 10,000 within a week," Makiya said. "They should have been there weeks ago, but better late than never."
After Baghdad fell, there was anger among some Iraqis in the capital that the U.S. forces were stretched too thin and were doing little to stop the rampant looting and to restore basic services, such as water and power.
The religious leaders among the Shiite community are increasingly keeping the peace in areas of Baghdad, as well as Karbala. The clerics have told their people to get out and direct traffic, pick up garbage, drive the buses and arm themselves to deter looters.
Davis, the VMI professor, said the unstable political situation stems from the Bush administration's misconception that when Hussein's regime fell, lower-level government workers, from police to sewer treatment plant operators, would remain on the job.
"We assumed average Iraqis would stay around," said Davis. Now more U.S. support forces are heading in to assist. "It's coming. It's a reaction to the reality of the situation," he said. "What's a bigger concern is what you see politically during this period of insecurity."
U.S. officials say they are concerned about the possible destabilizing effects of Shiite forces heading into Iraq from Iran. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told the Associated Press in an interview yesterday that a Muslim theocracy similar to Iran's would not be the democratic state the United States wants for Iraq.
Officials are also wary of allowing the Iraqi National Congress to gain too much political power. The U.S. military is keeping a close eye on Chalabi, who has taken over a hunt club in Baghdad and is seeking to play an important role in the creation of a new government.
This week, McKiernan removed from power an INC member, Muhammed Mohsen al-Zubaidi, who had installed himself as Baghdad's administrator.
In an effort to rein in all political activity, McKiernan issued a proclamation Wednesday stating only the coalition "retains absolute authority within Iraq."
Sun staff writer Todd Richissin contributed to this article.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times