Crisis in Iraq: After a 'tough week', where do we go now?
IN TEXAS, President George Bush celebrated Easter by praying with US troops at Ford Hood; in the past seven days, ten Fort Hood soldiers have died in Iraq.
The war is not playing so well in the United States these days, with support ebbing away with each day’s bad news, but if Mr Bush was having doubts about what he had started, he was not letting them show.
"Our troops are taking care of business," he said. "Their job is to make Iraq more secure, so that a peaceful Iraq can emerge. And they’re doing a great job, and it was a tough week last week. And my prayers and thoughts are with those who paid the ultimate price for our security."
But under pressure in Washington to commit even more US troops to stabilise a situation some have suggested is teetering on the brink of collapse, he appeared keen to buy himself time and allow diplomacy a chance.
Some want him to delay the projected 30 June handover, but with an election looming, Mr Bush is in a corner. "I pray every day there are less casualties. but I know what we are doing in Iraq is right, right for long-term peace, right for the security of our country."
At least he could still rely on the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, sounding if anything more bullish than the president. There was no question of the spiralling violence in Iraq forcing him to withdraw British troops from the "historic struggle", he said.
Mr Blair, due to meet Mr Bush in Washington this week, said pulling out forces would only encourage extremists. "When [some] call on us to bring the troops home, do they seriously think that this would slake the thirst of the extremists, to say nothing of what it would do to the Iraqis?" he asked.
But the critical voices will just not go away. The former foreign secretary Robin Cook accused Mr Bush of "ham-fisted overkill" and a "spectacular own goal" by attacking Sunni and Shiite militias, describing the helicopter attacks on Fallujah as a "massive propaganda gift".
The Tory leader, Michael Howard, said Britain was "punching below our weight" diplomatically and politically and had to be given a greater role in decision-making on the ground. He claimed Britain’s presence had been weakened by the departure of the Prime Minister’s special envoy, Sir Jeremy Greenstock, at the end of March and called on the government to appoint a "senior and experienced" representative as deputy to the US administrator, Paul Bremer.
And Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah, the Kuwaiti prime minister, warned Iraq would break apart if the US-led coalition stuck to its 30 June deadline to transfer authority.
By the brutal standards of the last week, it was a quiet day in Fallujah yesterday. Two more US troops were injured when a sniper opened up on their patrol, but neither side appeared to have much enthusiasm for the slaughter of the previous days. Instead, they haggled and jockeyed for position, civilians taking the opportunity to get out, US forces bringing up reinforcements.
Engagements were sporadic. After the sniper attack, a brief firefight broke out, killing at least one insurgent. Another US patrol took incoming fire: "They are not playing by the rules, sir," marine Captain Jason Smith radioed to his commander, but for once US soldiers did not fire back. They had been instructed not to launch offensive attacks.
In the al-Jolan area of the city, one guerrilla commander said his fighters would abide by the truce as long as it lasted. "I have ordered my fighters to adhere to the ceasefire," Abu Muadh said. "But I warn everyone: If the enemy breaks the ceasefire, we will respond."
The ceasefire was due to last until 10pm but talks were continuing to extend it. US commanders called the halt at the request of the US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, many of whose members had been angered by the bloodshed.
But the longer-term hopes for the ceasefire appeared to hinge on the handover of the Iraqis who killed and mutilated four US civilians on 31 March. If that is not forthcoming, it is hard to see how the US forces could withdraw from the city without losing face.
Hundreds of US reinforcements moved into place on the edge of the city, joining 1,200 marines and nearly 900 Iraqi security force members. "We haven’t imposed any terms. At the moment we’re just trying to get the ceasefire in place," said Mr Bremer. "What we’re trying to do is simply get the forces to stop firing. We’re in a testing time right now."
Elsewhere, it was the same old story. On the western edge of Baghdad, smoke rose from the wreckage of an Apache helicopter downed by ground fire in the morning, killing its two crew members. More helicopters circled overhead, while US troops closed off the main highway, a key supply route. Tanks and Humvees moved into the area near the suburb of Abu Ghraib, where masked gunmen have wreaked havoc in recent days, attacking fuel convoys and blowing up tanker lorries. Insurgents kidnapped an American civilian and killed a US soldier in the area on Friday.
Yesterday brought at least one piece of good news, the release of the British civilian Gary Teeley, seized by militants in the southern Iraqi city of An Nasiriyah last week. Mr Teeley was handed over to coalition forces in the same city yesterday. The laundry firm consultant from London was said to have been working for a Qatari firm in the southern Iraqi city at the time of his disappearance last Monday.
But elsewhere there was little to raise the spirits of those waiting for news of other missing workers. Video footage aired on Arabic television showed the bodies of two dead westerners - apparently a pair of Americans seen by cameramen on Friday being dragged out of a car on the Abu Ghraib highway. The cameramen fled and the two men’s fate was unknown. But one of the bodies in today’s footage resembled one American taken out of the car.
The new video showed the bodies surrounded by gunmen, who are heard on the tape saying the two are US intelligence officers. One of the bodies lay sprawled on the pavement, his face bloodied and his right leg drenched in blood. The other body had been rolled face down, his shirt lifted to reveal a bullet hole in his back.
Germany’s foreign ministry said two security agents for the German Embassy in Baghdad who have been missing for several days were most likely dead. One British newspaper yesterday carried a front page picture of the body of what it said was one of the men.
The fate of three Japanese civilians taken hostage last week remained uncertain. Japanese officials in Jordan said they were negotiating with unidentified people in Iraq for their release and authorities continued to show hope they would soon win their freedom.
Last week the US said it had tired of the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and planned to move against him. His supporters await the next move. In the city of Karbala, hundreds of Shiite militiamen - but no police - patrolled the street preparing for the anticipated US assault. Sadr’s militia has control of Karbala but yesterday the streets were packed with pilgrims, waving traditional Shiite red, green and black flags, and praying at the city’s main holy site, the Imam Hussein Shrine, to mark the al-Arbaeen ceremonies.
Gunmen from the al-Mahdi army, the militia headed by Sadr, set up checkpoints near the shrine and patrolled the streets.
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