United States: Escalating guerrilla attacks feed fears of new Vietnam

Six months ago a hugely popular George Bush declared 'Mission Accomplished'. But now Rupert Cornwell finds the President's political life in danger as even former hawks see history repeating itself
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The Independent US

On a crystal-clear November afternoon in Washington DC, tourists trickle slowly past the Vietnam War memorial, as usual. Some take photos. Others make a stone rubbing of the name of a lost loved one, carved in the plain black granite.

Katrina Arnwine, 35, has travelled from the West Coast to visit Washington and scans a stone panel for a name. "He's the son of a friend of mine. He was just 19 when he was killed, back in 1970." And as the toll of deaths continues to rise steadily in Iraq, she wonders whether a similar tragedy may be starting to unfold.

"The war was supposed to have been won. But our troops are still in Iraq and they're still dying. Every day you hear of more of them, more now since the so-called end of active engagements than during the war. Many of them are so young, and they've no idea why they're there and why they were sent there in the first place."

Ms Arnwine is not alone. To be sure, a majority of Americans still believe that the conflict was worthwhile, that the world is a better place without Saddam Hussein, however dubious the rationale that he was a real and imminent threat to their country. As Condoleezza Rice, George Bush's National Security Adviser, told The Independent on Sunday ahead of the President's visit to London: "This is a regime in which we have already found mass graves ... the world is far better off and freedom has been advanced by the destruction of that regime. So when people are protesting in the streets, I hope they'll remember that finally Iraqis ... may have a chance to have the same privilege."

But six and a half months after President Bush, dressed in a Top Gun pilot's suit, declared an end to major combat operations beneath that now infamous banner proclaiming "Mission Accomplished", a quiet fear is spreading among many ordinary Americans - that their country is slipping ineluctably into another overseas morass of its own making.

Mr Bush, his Vice-President, Dick Cheney, and the neo-conservatives who dominate the administration, are congenitally unable to admit that anything has gone wrong. The present difficulties were expected, they maintain; ultimate victory is certain. But today even they cannot deny that this wasn't how it was supposed to be.

Despite every White House effort to minimise the domestic impact of the casualties, including a ban on media coverage of the returning coffins, Ms Arnwine and everyone else are well aware that day after day two or three (or even, once, 16) Americans are killed by an elusive and ever more organised resistance.

Cover the positive, the White House urges, but in vain. The pictures and news stories from Iraq dwell on coalition losses, suicide bombings and the declining morale of 130,000 troops, some of whose tours of duty have been extended to a year or more.

Last week the crisis could be hidden no longer, as Paul Bremer, the chief US civilian administrator in Baghdad, was summoned back to Washington and told by Mr Bush to accelerate the political handover to Iraqis. But how? Elections first and then a new government, or the other way round? What sort of new constitution should be agreed and when?

A "variety of options" are under consideration, says Ms Rice, slipping into diplo-speak. "Clearly, though, the course decided will have to be an Iraqi course," she notes. "Iraqification", the process is called, reminiscent of the Vietnamisation of yore. The difference is that even after "Iraqification", American troops will stay in the country to provide security.

Now finally it has dawned even on the cheeriest Pentagon neo-cons, such as Douglas Feith, undersecretary of defence for policy and the department's number-three ranking civilian official, that Washington's goals risk sliding into insoluble conflict. As Americans become increasingly unwelcome, the US troop presence will reduce the credibility of a supposedly Iraqi government, and fuel suspicions that the real aim of the US is control of Iraq's oil.

Yet to pull the soldiers out would invite charges of abandonment, and a complete collapse of security. There was, Mr Feith owned, "a tension" between the two objectives.

Less than a year before he faces the voters in the 2004 election, Mr Bush knows that if this guerrilla war continues to exact casualties at the present rate and if Iraq's political future is unresolved next November, then his political future too might be in grave doubt.

Maybe, of course, it will all come right: Saddam Hussein will be captured, rivalries between Iraq's various ethnic and religious groups will vanish, and everyone will live happily ever after.

Close to the Vietnam memorial, vendors still tout that Pentagon "deck of cards", depicting Iraq's most wanted, and triumphalist posters with "Gotcha" scrawled in black over the faces of Saddam's killed and captured henchmen. Today, however, they are ancient icons, reminders that an age of innocence vanished only six months ago.