Worse Than the Usual Bad


The confirmation Monday that U.S. forces in Iraq failed to prevent the looting of 380 tons of conventional explosives represents a new chapter for the “just when you thought things could not get much worse” file. Further, the execution-style murder Saturday of dozens of Iraqis being trained as soldiers, the very men to whom the United States planned to transfer the job of guarding the country, demonstrates an abject failure by Iraqis and occupation officials to learn from past mistakes.

The International Atomic Energy Agency announced Monday what it told the interim Iraqi government and the Bush administration earlier this month: High-powered explosives that could demolish buildings, bring down aircraft or detonate nuclear weapons have disappeared from a former Iraqi army site about 30 miles south of Baghdad. A Pentagon official said troops searched the site soon after the March 2003 invasion and found the explosives that had previously been counted by the United Nations. But U.S.-led coalition forces failed to guard the site, and the explosives later disappeared.

President Bush has repeatedly said his generals have not told him they need more than the 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. But it’s now clear that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and his Pentagon colleagues should have listened to Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, then the Army chief of staff, when he warned that “several hundred thousand” troops would be required to win the peace as well as the war. Instead, Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, disparaged Shinseki and shoved him aside.


The ineptness of the Pentagon’s civilian leadership surfaced as well in its confused attack-and-retreat from the Sunni stronghold of Fallouja. Times reporters Alissa J. Rubin and Doyle McManus reported Sunday that after the March 31 killing and mutilation of four American security guards, a Marine general said that rather than besiege the city out of anger, his troops should first enlist moderates to provide intelligence. Rumsfeld did not tell Bush of the Marines’ objections, and the president authorized the attack. Yet when the Marines reported that they were close to retaking the city, the White House, worried about backlash, ordered a cease-fire. Fallouja remains under insurgent control and is the base of one of Iraq’s main terrorist leaders, Abu Musab Zarqawi.

Zarqawi’s followers claimed responsibility for the Saturday attack on the unarmed army recruits. Rebels dressed as police or soldiers stopped three vehicles, ordered the passengers out and shot them. Iraqi police and military trainees have been targets for months. The recruits should have been protected by other soldiers or given weapons to defend themselves.

The U.S. military prides itself on the lessons it learns in combat. Yet the continued assaults on Iraqi police and military trainees, and the evidence that insurgents keep infiltrating those squads, indicate a failure to adapt tactics to an increasingly powerful and sophisticated enemy.

There have been better days in the Iraq war, but not many worse ones.