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Battle almost over, the war remains

Cairo, April 7 (Reuters): US-led forces may achieve military victory in Iraq within a week or two, but winning the war politically is more uncertain and will take far longer.

As Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz wrote: “Even the ultimate outcome of war is not always to be regarded as final. The defeated state often considers the outcome merely as a transitory evil, for which a remedy may still be found in political conditions at some later date.”

Overwhelming US air power, high-tech weaponry, sweeping ground manoeuvres and surprise have taken US forces close to the heart of Baghdad in less than three weeks, even as Iraqi fighters, most lightly armed, continue sporadic resistance.

Many analysts believe the outcome of the Iraq war will only be decisive if and when a stable, self-sufficient successor government to President Saddam Hussein is installed and able to run the country without a US military presence.

Even optimistic opposition leaders such as Pentagon favourite Ahmad Chalabi of the Iraqi National Congress say that will take at least two years.

Many pitfalls await US and British forces once they have secured military control over the sprawling country, including the risk of guerrilla attacks and suicide bombings, a settling of scores among Iraqis, and ethnic or sectarian strife.

Today’s dramatic US tank thrust into central Baghdad, raiding two presidential palaces, brought closer the moment when the US and Britain seize the heart of the Iraqi government and put it out of action.

“Basra will fall, Baghdad will fall... You can sweep up the rest later. You could set up a going administration once you have Baghdad and Basra,” said Andrew Brookes, a defence analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

US deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage spoke of “the last dying gasp of a violent regime”.

But US military spokesman Brigadier General Vincent Brooks dampened expectations of a quick end to hostilities.

“It’s very clear to all who consider it that we haven’t finished our work yet. So we’re a long way from being able to celebrate victory,” he told a news conference in Qatar.

President George W. Bush set three broad objectives at the start of the war — “to disarm Iraq, free its people and to defend the world from grave danger”.

US officials defined the aims more precisely as changing the Iraqi regime, ridding the country of weapons of mass destruction and installing what they variously call a democratic or a representative government.

Strategists close to defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld have added reshaping West Asia to weaken or change “extremist” governments, spread democracy and promote Arab-Israeli peace.

Given the degree to which Bush has personalised the fight against Saddam, many in the West may only feel the war is won if the Iraqi leader is either arrested or killed.

If he were to escape, as Saudi-born Islamic militant leader Osama bin Laden did after the US-led war in Afghanistan, or disappear, many might feel victory was insecure.

Likewise, if the US were to find no trace of chemical and biological weapons it accuses Saddam of hiding from UN inspectors, that could undermine the legitimacy of the war in some eyes and tarnish the military triumph.

But most experts say the real definition of whether victory has been achieved will come long after the fighting is over.

“There will be a military victory in a few days. But the kind of political stabilisation that is the real victory will take a couple of years,” said Prof. Joachim Krause, head of the Security Policy Institute at Germany’s Kiel University.

“The most important thing will be to get a multi-party, multi-ethnic Iraqi coalition running a proper, transparent government,” he said.

The US has said it will set up its own occupation administration, headed by a retired general, for at least six months and turn over authority only gradually to Iraqis.

European and Arab states are insisting the UN must play the leading role in rebuilding the Iraqi state.

British military historian Sir Michael Howard has argued that the 1991 Gulf War to drive Iraq out of Kuwait was not decisive, despite the crushing success of the US-led alliance, because the losers never accepted the terms of their defeat. The result was a decade-long struggle over weapons of mass destruction, with UN economic sanctions, periodic Iraqi threats against Kuwait and US-led air strikes on Iraq.

If serious Iraqi armed resistance were to persist after Saddam’s fall, possibly involving former security men in league with organised crime, the durability of a US victory might be called into question.

Many in the Arab world recall how Lebanese Islamic militants bombed US forces out of Beirut in 1983 with suicide attacks and harassed Israeli forces until they withdrew unilaterally from southern Lebanon in 2000.

But Krause said Saddam’s loyalists were not religious and few would commit suicide for a fallen ruler. Central Iraq’s desert terrain does not lend itself to guerrilla warfare.

Snuffing out pockets of urban resistance would depend on winning the cooperation of the Iraqi population.

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