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Humility, Candor in Iraq

The killing of 16 U.S. soldiers in a helicopter crash Sunday demands even more involvement by Iraqis in securing and defending their nation and less boasting about progress from Bush administration officials.

The day before guerrillas fired a shoulder-mounted surface-to-air missile to down the transport helicopter, L. Paul Bremer III, the top U.S. official in Iraq, promised to speed up the training of police and cut in half the instruction for many recruits in a new Iraqi army. Those are needed measures; so is the recruitment of soldiers from what was Saddam Hussein’s army. Transforming an Iraqi baker or mechanic into an army private in half the usual time increases the need for sergeants and captains who know how to lead men and can teach what wasn’t learned in boot camp. Dissolving Hussein’s army was a mistake; enlisted men and lower-ranking officers could have been screened, paid and given the job of policing and defending the nation.

Washington’s recognition that not all is going well in Iraq also is overdue. President Bush boasted in July that if Iraqi resistance fighters thought they could attack U.S. troops, “bring them on.” Last week, with nearly 100 more U.S. soldiers killed since Bush’s bluster, he acknowledged that Iraq is “a dangerous place.” Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who usually has provided upbeat reports, on Sunday realistically labeled Iraq “a war, a low-intensity conflict.”

Doses of humility and candor are a welcome change from the prewar certitude that Iraqis would welcome invaders with open arms and an excessive postwar emphasis on promoting how most of Iraq had peace. Last week, a suicide bomber killed 12 people at the Baghdad headquarters of the International Committee of the Red Cross and sent shock waves through organizations laboring to help Iraqis recover from decades of Hussein’s terror and war. A suicide bomber killed 22 people at the United Nations headquarters in the Iraqi capital in August; the U.N. now has withdrawn nearly all of its foreign personnel from Baghdad.

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Other nations understandably are reluctant to supply more troops for Iraq, but the U.S. needs help. Countries put off by Washington’s earlier swagger may be more willing to help when they see a chastened administration, especially with the understanding that a foreign troop presence should be only temporary.

Even Iraqis overjoyed by Hussein’s ouster resent foreign soldiers. It will be up to Iraqis, not outsiders, to guard their borders, patrol their neighborhoods and hunt down terrorists. The sooner the U.S. gets Iraqis trained for those jobs and helping with elections and the writing of a new constitution, the better. The increasing number and severity of attacks on U.S. forces, foreign aid workers and Iraqi civilians show the need for better intelligence and a more forceful response; Iraqis must take the lead in both.


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