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David Ignatius

The Price Of Staying Power

By David Ignatius
Tuesday, December 7, 2004; Page A25

BAGHDAD -- The good news and the bad news are the same here: America isn't leaving. A sign of how this resolve to stay the course is playing out in the minds of some Iraqis comes from the local real estate market.

An Iraqi businessman was negotiating several months ago to sell a prime piece of commercial real estate in central Baghdad. He had tentatively agreed on a price with a Kuwaiti investor, who planned someday to build an electronics superstore on the 9,850-square-foot property. But after President Bush was reelected in November, the Iraqi jacked up the price 25 percent. The prospect that a reelected Bush administration would stay and fight -- and ultimately stabilize Iraq -- had instantly made his property more valuable.

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Dramatic evidence of this American resolve came with last week's announcement that the United States would increase its troop strength over the next few months to about 150,000. It's a symbolic demonstration that the administration is deepening its investment in Iraq -- determined not simply to prevail here but to show radical Islamists that America cannot be intimidated by force.

"It is all about staying the course," says Gen. John Abizaid, the U.S. commander with overall responsibility for the war. "No military effort that anyone can make against us is going to be able to throw us out of this region."

I traveled with Abizaid last weekend to Baghdad, Mosul and Irbil. The trip offered a quick snapshot of the U.S. military's battle to prevail against what has become a classic insurgency. At each stop Abizaid had the same message for his local commanders: Destroy the insurgents who are attacking U.S. and Iraqi government forces. Find them, engage them, kill them.

"We should have no illusions about the hardest core of this enemy," says Abizaid. The former Baathists and Islamic jihadists who are fighting against the U.S.-led coalition will not compromise. These fighters, he says, "will have to be killed or captured."

Both sides have hunkered down over the past month. The United States took the war more aggressively to its elusive enemy with November's bloody reconquest of the insurgent safe haven of Fallujah. But the insurgents, far from broken, have been stepping up their attacks in Baghdad and the northern city of Mosul -- hoping to intimidate the Iraqi police and security forces that are the shaky centerpiece of America's strategy.

The war has become a classic test of wills. An example is the insurgents' campaign to close the capital's most important strategic artery, the road from the airport to central Baghdad and the Green Zone. When the insurgents added roving car bombs to their mix of ambushes and roadside explosives, the United States decided last week to ban official travel along the road. It was an insurgent victory, but probably a momentary one. The Americans have already decided on their response: They will take two lanes of the four-lane highway and create a dedicated road that will be open only to official traffic. Iraqis, car bombers and ordinary citizens alike, will be forced to use the other two lanes, safely across the median.

Next come the Iraqi elections, scheduled for Jan. 30. U.S. officials know the process will be messy and violent, especially in areas where the Sunni Muslim insurgency is strong, but they say people who want to vote will be able to do so. Asked what life will be like the day after the election, several commanders say it probably won't be very different from the day before. The insurgency will continue, the Americans will remain, the battle will go on.

Abizaid and his generals hope that there is a tipping point ahead -- a moment when Iraqis conclude that the Americans really do mean to stay the course. "They're sitting on the fence, waiting to see who's going to win this thing," says Lt. Gen. Thomas Metz, who commands day-to-day military operations in Iraq. "They have to see that we're going to take this thing to the conclusion." Once people are confident the Americans have the upper hand, Metz predicts, there will be a "stampede" to support the new Iraqi government.

The Iraq war has been characterized, since its earliest planning, by too much wishful American thinking. The U.S. commanders still talk with an optimism that is hard to square with the chaotic situation in Baghdad and the Sunni heartland. But it's at least tempered by a realistic understanding that this will be a long, bloody fight -- and that some form of insurgency will probably continue after the Americans finally leave.

The measure of victory will be that Iraqi security forces can take over the fight. But that's a factor, unfortunately, that remains beyond the ferocious willpower of the American generals.

davidignatius@washpost.com


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