The top U.S. commander in the war also said he strongly disagrees with the view that the United States is heading toward defeat in Iraq. "We are not losing, militarily," Army Gen. John Abizaid said in an interview Friday. He said that the U.S. military is winning tactically. But he stopped short of being as positive about the overall trend. Rather, he said, "strategically, I think there are opportunities."
The prisoner abuse scandal and the continuing car bombings and U.S. casualties "create the image of a military that's not being effective in the counterinsurgency," he said. But in reality, "the truth of the matter is . . . there are some good signals out there."
An Apache helicopter flies over a burning car after a two-car convoy came under attack Saturday in Baghdad.
(Khalid Mohammed -- AP)
Abizaid cited the resumption of economic reconstruction and the political progress made with Sunni Muslims in resolving the standoff around Fallujah, and increasing cooperation from Shiite Muslims in isolating radical Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr. "I'm looking at the situation, and I told the secretary of defense the other day I feel pretty comfortable with where we are," he said.
Even so, he said, "There's liable to be a lot of fighting in May and June," as the June 30 date for turning over sovereignty to an Iraqi government approaches.
Commanders on the ground in Iraq seconded that cautiously optimistic view.
"I am sure that the view from Washington is much worse than it appears on the ground here in Baqubah," said Army Col. Dana J.H. Pittard, commander of a 1st Infantry Division brigade based in that city about 40 miles north of Baghdad. "I do not think that we are losing, but we will lose if we are not careful." He said he is especially worried about maintaining political and economic progress in the provinces after the turnover of power.
Army Lt. Col. John Kem, a battalion commander in Baghdad, said that the events of the past two months -- first the eruption of a Shiite insurgency, followed by the detainee abuse scandal -- "certainly made things harder," but he said he doubted they would have much effect on the long-term future of Iraq.
But some say that behind those official positions lies deep concern.
One Pentagon consultant said that officials with whom he works on Iraq policy continue to put on a happy face publicly, but privately are grim about the situation in Baghdad. When it comes to discussions of the administration's Iraq policy, he said, "It's 'Dead Man Walking.' "
The worried generals and colonels are simply beginning to say what experts outside the military have been saying for weeks.
In mid-April, even before the prison detainee scandal, Peter Galbraith, a former U.S. ambassador to Croatia, wrote in the New York Review of Books that "patience with foreign occupation is running out, and violent opposition is spreading. Civil war and the breakup of Iraq are more likely outcomes than a successful transition to a pluralistic Western-style democracy." The New York Review of Books is not widely read in the U.S. military, but the article, titled "How to Get Out of Iraq," was carried online and began circulating among some military intellectuals.
Likewise, Rep. John P. Murtha (Pa.), a former Marine who is one of most hawkish Democrats in Congress, said last week: "We cannot prevail in this war as it is going today," and said that the Bush administration should either boost its troop numbers or withdraw.
Larry Diamond, who until recently was a senior political adviser of the U.S. occupation authority in Iraq, argued that the United States is not losing the war but is in danger of doing so. "I think that we have fallen into a period of real political difficulty where we are no longer clearly winning the peace, and where the prospect of a successful transition to democracy is in doubt.
"Basically, it's up in the air now," Diamond continued. "That's what is at stake. . . . We can't keep making tactical and strategic mistakes."