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ONE-YEAR ANNIVERSARY SPECIAL REPORT

Iraq Journals

Glimpses of life in a war-torn country by GNS national security correspondent John Yaukey and photo director Jeff Franko.

Multimedia

Interactive timeline, image gallery

Recall key dates, browse defining photos from six weeks of combat in Iraq. (Requires Flash)

 

Recent headlines

General: Iraqi troops improve

January 26, 2005

Parties waging a polite battle to control Najaf

January 25, 2005

In Iraq, the question is: To vote or not to vote

January 25, 2005

Politics popular in Shiite areas

January 20, 2005

 

Also on the Web

Dispatches from Iraq

Special coverage and photo galleries of American troops serving in Iraq from The Honolulu Advertiser.

Iraq In-Depth

Take an interactive tour of Saddam's hide-out and capture at USATODAY.com's Iraq home page.

 

GNS Archive

Click here to browse more than 1,000 Iraq war news stories from the front lines and the home front.

 

 

Thursday, March 13

Bush boldly faces soaring risks in Iraq

By John Yaukey

WASHINGTON - President Bush is said to have a sly gambler's instincts.

But rare is the high roller who would risk what he has with his unflinching plans to disarm Iraq, remove Saddam Hussein and nurture democracy in a land of oil-rich emirs.

Surging opposition abroad to war in Iraq, threats of terrorist reprisals and a domestic economy shuddering under the uncertainty of it all have molded the looming confrontation into a defining moment for the president.

If all goes well, Bush would emerge vindicated in the first field test of his controversial foreign policy of preemptive attacks to thwart terrorism.

Failure could destabilize the Middle East, entangle the United States in a powder keg region, incite terrorists, terrify the economy and ultimately leave the president vulnerable in 2004.

"I think in many respects Americans are not fully prepared for this, so there's some real risk to it," said Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "I had occasion to chat with a general engaged in this, and his sense was that Americans don't appreciate just how intensely violent this will be. Nor do they appreciate, while the U.S. will almost certainly prevail, the uncertainties that could develop along the way and the difficult situations that have to be managed.''

Terrorist attacks

Perhaps the most worrisome potential outcome of a U.S.-led war in Iraq is the threat of terrorist retaliations.

No paucity of terrorism experts suspect that al-Qaida is watching events in Iraq closely waiting for an opportune moment to strike against Americans.

"This is a spotlight moment for al-Qaida,'' said Daniel Byman, who teaches security studies at Georgetown University. "If Iraq's conventional military means fail to work, al-Qaida can show that terrorism is the best way of confronting the United States.''

Already, Iraq has made some rather grandiose threats, including Vice President Taha Yasin Ramadan's recent boast that he would use suicide attackers against the United States in the event of war.

The Bush administration has tried to counter this by painting the war as a liberation of the Iraqi people.

"The United States has a track record of leaving places better than we found them,'' Secretary of State Colin Powell recently said.

But this relatively new foreign policy is up against centuries of Arab history.

Scholars at Cairo's Al-Azhar University, the leading seat of Sunni Muslim scholarship in the Arab world, recently declared that a U.S. war against Iraq would threaten all Arabs and urged a jihad in response.

In a statement published in Egyptian newspapers, the scholars called the U.S. military buildup in the Persian Gulf the leading edge of a new "crusade," a highly evocative word in the Arab world where ill feelings over the medieval crusades still run strong.

A high civilian body count in a war with Iraq almost certainly would affirm these hostile views across huge swaths of the Islamic world.

Occupying Iraq

Sending U.S. tanks rolling into Baghdad would be a first for a U.S. president, marking the only time the United States has conquered and occupied an Arab nation.

It's an environment fraught with perils rooted in ancient ethnic tensions. Keeping the peace among the armed Kurdish factions in the north, the restive majority Shiites in the south and the Sunni Muslims that form the bulk of Saddam's ruling Baath Party will keep U.S. troops endlessly tied up.

France's ambassador to the United States, Jean-David Levitte, described it as "a very complex place - much like the former Yugoslavia,'' where U.S. troops remain mired in peacekeeping operations with no end in sight.

Initially, American-led forces in Iraq will have three major tasks in Iraq once fighting subsides: securing the vast oil fields, destroying Saddam's chemical and biological weapons and feeding Iraq's 22 million people, most of whom now depend on the government for rations.

Stabilizing the population will be crucial to ensuring that the occupation appears as a humanitarian effort, but the confusion and devastation that follows combat is often when most civilians die in wartime.

War could create as many as 1.5 million refugees, adding to the 1 million Iraqis already displaced.

Failure to restore order to all of this quickly would leave the United States vulnerable to an international rebuke as a brutish colonial giant repeating the mistakes of its European predecessors a century ago.

Economic jitters

Regardless of how well a potential war with Iraq goes, the insecurity before the storm is already spooking the economy.

Airlines, smarting from terrorism and their own mismanagement, are preparing for a 10 percent war-related downturn in business by postponing delivery of new aircraft, deferring wage negotiations and lobbying Congress for yet another relief package.

Consumers have been rattled by surging oil prices, a cooling of the housing market and the staggering loss of more than 308,000 jobs in February.

Equity investors recently fled to the safety of Treasury bonds despite interest rates dipping close to their lowest levels since 1958.

These are hardly theoretical problems for Bush, whose father fell from near 90 percent approval ratings following the Persian Gulf War to defeat in his 1992 re-election bid almost solely because of a recession.

Vulnerable in 2004?

The president's failure to attract a broad international coalition to oust Saddam has emboldened some leading Democrats to take early shots at his foreign policy, potentially foreshadowing what could be central debate in the 2004 presidential campaign.

Doves and hawks alike have not been timid about attacking what some see as a dangerously unilateralist approach that could leave Americans more vulnerable to terrorists.

"The path to a safer world and a more secure America rarely comes from a go-it-alone approach,'' Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., lamented.

Presidential candidate Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., recently cited a study that named Bush a greater threat to peace than Saddam, telling voters in New Hampshire "you know something is really wrong with his foreign policy.''

The president is well aware of the multiple fronts on which he could suffer irreparable damage.

And yet since shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, he has remained unmovable in the position that Saddam represents a risk to U.S. security that he is not willing to gamble with.