The latest images from Iraq are hard to stomach, too

As sectarian violence, insurgent attacks and a military raid claim more lives, administration officials warn of a long road ahead.

Published March 15, 2006 2:09PM (EST)

The abuses at Abu Ghraib may be an ugly part of our nation's history, but neither the present nor the future of Iraq is looking a whole lot prettier.

As the Associated Press is reporting, Iraqi authorities discovered the bodies of 87 men Tuesday. Many of them were dressed only in their underwear; most of them had been murdered execution-style. The justification for at least some of their deaths: Retaliation for a bomb and mortar attack in Sadr City that killed at least 58 people two days earlier.

The cycle of violence continues -- if this doesn't fit some textbook example of civil war, does it really matter anymore? -- but the killing isn't all of the sectarian sort. Two U.S. soldiers died in the insurgent-heavy Anbar province Tuesday. And when U.S. troops raided a house in Baghdad this morning, successfully capturing a suspected insurgent, four family members were killed in the process. The military says four people died; police and relatives say it was 11, and that the death toll included a number of children. Images from the aftermath of the raid may be as disturbing as anything captured on a digital camera inside Abu Ghraib.

Does it get better from here? Not necessarily. Although the Pentagon and the Bush administration had floated talk of a troop draw-down in spring, Donald Rumsfeld hinted Tuesday that things may be headed in the opposite direction. The secretary of defense said the senior U.S. commander in Iraq may want to "bulk up" on troops in advance of upcoming holidays in Iraq. Rumsfeld insisted that the United States is still on a general path toward drawing down troops, and the president still talks about the "real progress" being made in turning over ground to Iraqi security forces. But military experts and even some administration officials tell the Washington Post that turning over control to Iraqi forces might not make much of a difference. While it's true that so-called "Iraqi-owned battle space" is growing, the Post says that administration officials are warning "against assuming that American troops could come home" just because more Iraqi forces are standing up. Iraqi forces will still need a lot of U.S. support. "Moreover," the paper says, "because much of the insurgency has been concentrated in four provinces, Iraqi forces could theoretically control the bulk of the country without eliminating the bloody resistance to the U.S.-supported government."

And indeed, at least one expert says more Iraqi control may actually make matters worse. Handing over more territory to Shiite-dominated security forces could cause even more sectarian violence in Iraq, Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, tells the Post. "When we make these forces stronger, we make the underlying problem worse, not better," he says. "We're throwing gas on the political fire."

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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Donald Rumsfeld George W. Bush Iraq Middle East War Room