The $3 Billion Death Machine

WITH DEMOCRATS STILL UNABLE to find a unified or coherent position on the Iraqi debacle, President Bush has staged a political Hail Mary during the past few weeks, boldly and unblinkingly defending a war policy that a majority of the country rejects. His calculation was that tone and tenacity would trump his opponents’ ambiguity and internal divisions.

Bush may ultimately be proven right. But it’s a long shot. The one glitch in the White House strategy is that in promising more of the same in Iraq, that’s exactly what Bush is getting — an avalanche of negative news as the entire American project in Baghdad collapses.

Wasn’t it just a few weeks ago that the Pentagon announced a major joint operation with Iraqi forces to finally get a grip on the capital itself? Yet in the first three days of this week alone, Baghdad has been plunged into a bloody carnival of carnage, a macabre spectacle that has shocked even calloused Iraqi residents who mistakenly believed they had already seen everything.

That is, until last Sunday morning, when masked squads of Shiite militias brazenly set up roadblocks in the west side of the capital and — randomly pulling people suspected of being Sunnis out of their cars — shot them dead on site. By the time the U.S.-backed security forces got to the scene, the corpses in the streets and sidewalks were already rotting in the noonday sun. Those gruesome events were followed by two retaliation car bombings by Sunnis, running the day’s death toll up to 60. The next day, Monday, almost an equal number were killed when seven more car bombs went off, two civilian buses were raked with machine-gun fire, and a Sunni family of five were beheaded. Add to that another handful of bodies found in the same neighborhood where the Shiite squads had rampaged the day before, and the assassination of a provincial mayor.

The only experience I can personally draw on to try and comprehend the totality of all this is my years spent reporting on the war in El Salvador. Even at the most horrific peak of that country’s death-squad murders (when they were running a few hundred per week), the Salvadoran gunmen had to operate in secrecy and under cover of night. They didn’t quite have the brass pelotas — nor the objective conditions, you could say — to set up checkpoints downtown and shoot people outside their cars. But that was then, this is now. This is Iraq.

There is an escalating bloodbath currently under way in the capital of Iraq, or at least a low-level civil war in which American troops and its allies we are “standing up” in the new security forces have been rendered impotent and irrelevant (with the aggravating factor, as reported by the L.A. Times, that those security forces themselves are plagued by corruption, brutality and violence).

The president and his supporters can stand on their heads and repeat until they and we are purple and blue that progress is at hand, but none of those assurances, distortions or mendacities will change the chilling, awful facts on the ground.

The stress inflicted on U.S. troops, fighting an enemy they cannot see, subjected in many cases to multiple tours of combat and with a national political leadership incapable of articulating broader strategic goals, has begun to increasingly turn murderous. The reports of American soldiers being scrutinized, investigated or detained on human-rights allegations cascade through the news. Some Iraqi officials are proposing that U.S. troops now become subject to criminal prosecution in Iraqi courts. Don’t count on that happening anytime soon.

INDEED, DON’T COUNT ON ANYTHING in Iraq happening soon, except more bloodletting. The Democrats have once again squandered an opportunity to take a clear, comprehensible and alternative position on the war. And I mean any position. Instead, we have gotten a hedged, gutless mishmash of schedules, timetables, charts and graphs all about as accessible to logic as was Hillary Clinton’s 8,764-page plan for national health care back in 1994. So tortured are the pathetic Democrats over the war, they’ve invented a new strategy that no one can explain: “redeployment.” What the hell does that mean? Withdraw but don’t withdraw? Leave but don’t leave? Neither in nor out? It sounds like a recipe for semi-insemination. Do they think that sort of mealy-mouthed nonposition is going to please anybody except their own advisers and consultants?

That leaves George Bush and the Republicans in place to continue promising more of the same. But beyond the fizzy rhetorical bromides about building democracy and ensuring peace, who among the Bushies can step forward and simply tell us what victory actually looks like? Right now it looks like an endless, open-ended, $3 billion-a-week commitment, which will continue to plunge us into deeper moral and financial bankruptcy and with little to show for it at the end — whatever that means — other than the creation of ethnic death squads or perhaps all-out civil war itself.

Yes, we have removed Saddam Hussein and ended his regime. But the hundred Iraqis murdered so far this week are no less dead than if they had been killed by the dictator himself. Life is never better when you are already dead.


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