Iraq's own battle for democracy

By Page Rockwell
Published February 16, 2005 12:07AM (EST)

Two weeks after the election, a new Iraqi government is taking shape -- final results were announced over the weekend, and the parties that fared well are choosing their candidates for president and prime minister. After almost two years of occupation, the emergence of a nascent democratic government is a triumph in its own right.

But lasting stability is an altogether different matter, and thus far the election hasn't made Iraq safer for Iraqis. The Washington Post reported last week that 153 Iraqis had been killed in attacks between January 30 and February 9; increased violence at the end of last week and last weekend put the toll over 200. The release of election results didn't do much to deter insurgent groups, who assassinated two high-ranking Iraqi policemen and a general following the announcement.

U.S. troops are training Iraqi security forces to handle attacks like these, in the hope that Iraqis will shortly be able to provide their own security. Despite optimistic pronouncements by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and others, though, the likelihood that these forces will be operating independently this year seems almost nil. The Independent points out that when the Pentagon gives estimates of trained troops, "only figures for troops 'on hand' are issued. The small number of soldiers, national guardsmen and police capable of operating against the country's bloody insurgency is concealed in an overall total of Iraqis in uniform, which includes raw recruits and police who have gone on duty after as little as three weeks' training. In some cases they have no weapons, body armor or even documents to show they are in the police."

The Post piece notes that soldiers, policemen, and army and police recruits have borne the brunt of the recent violence in Iraq; approximately two-thirds of the Iraqis who have died in the past two weeks have been security personnel. And the New York Times reported over the weekend that the bodies of six Iraqi national guardsmen had been found next to notes reading: "This is the destiny for those who participated in besieging Fallujah." Strapped for resources, inadequately trained and targeted by insurgents, the Iraqis face a daunting picture.

In a recent statement congratulating Iraqis on the election, President Bush said, "Terrorists and insurgents will continue to wage their war against democracy, and we will support the Iraqi people in their fight against them." Note the critical shift in language. Soon, as Bush suggests, the fight against insurgents and terrorists will be the Iraqis' own problem. But with Iraq's fledgling government and troops seemingly far from ready to protect the nation's citizens, all the post-election exuberance out of Washington could wind up looking like just another "mission accomplished" moment.

Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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