Sunday, November 30, 2003

Operation Sitting Duck

I tried to boil Carl Hiaasen’s column in The Miami Herald down to a few cogent paragraphs, but I can’t do it justice. Read the whole thing here.

Iraq becomes Operation Sitting Duck

A few days ago, two American soldiers in Iraq were shot, dragged from a truck and viciously beaten with concrete blocks. Their bodies were left on a dusty street in Mosul, a city once considered one of the safest for U.S. forces.

The murder and mutilation was carried out not by hardened operatives of al Qaeda, but by a gang of Iraqi teenagers, the very generation for whom we’ve been battling to ”liberate” the country.

For any civilians to act so barbarously shows a depth of hatred that is chilling. As the months drag on, and the flag-draped coffins of fallen Americans keep arriving at Dover Air Force Base, the mission in Iraq makes less sense than ever.

What are we doing there? Who are we fighting? How do we get out? The only question that now seems hollow is why we ever invaded in the first place.

The search for the phantom weapons of mass destruction has been reduced to a nightly punchline in Jay Leno’s monologue. No nukes, no anthrax and no nerve gas have been found; nothing to justify President Bush’s pre-war declaration that Saddam Hussein posed an immediate threat to global security.

So far, the most dangerous weapons uncovered are decidely low-tech — pistols, rifles, homemade bombs, land mines and RPGs fired from donkey-drawn wagons. Unfortunately, they’re doing a bang-up job of maiming and killing Americans.

The atmosphere in Iraq remains so perilous that on Thanksgiving Day, Bush had to sneak into Baghdad on a darkened Air Force One.

Whether the war was launched on false pretenses or merely faulty intelligence will be argued endlessly. The grim fact is that we’re there now, and we’re stuck.

In Afghanistan the mission was so clear. We were responding to a brazen attack against Americans on American soil. We knew who did it, and where they were hiding. The international community was virtually united behind us.

Iraq is another story. Saddam Hussein was a despicable tyrant, but not even the White House claims that he played a direct role in the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Picked off by snipers

The hijackers themselves weren’t Iraqis, nor were those who planned the crime. The man who approved it, Osama bin Laden, was known to detest Saddam.

Yet here we are mired in Iraq, our troops getting picked off by snipers, sappers and roadside rocket jockeys. Call it Operation Sitting Duck.

The hawks in the administration gripe that the media is focusing only on the bad news out of Baghdad, but where’s the good news?

Last week, U.S. Col. William Darley told reporters that attacks by Iraqi insurgents against U.S. forces had declined from a high of 40 per day in mid-November to about 30 per day now.

It hardly makes you want to pop the champagne, knowing that our troops are coming under fire more than once an hour.

This holiday weekend concludes the bloodiest month for U.S. forces since the so-called end of major combat. More than 60 U.S. soldiers have been killed by hostile fire in November.

As of Thanksgiving Day, a total of 183 had died since the president triumphantly jet-landed on that aircraft carrier May 1.

Technically, though, the White House was correct. Major combat in the conventional sense ended in Iraq. These days our soldiers are dying by ambush and assassination.

GI murders in Mosul

Despite somewhat muted media coverage — Michael Jackson’s arrest received more attention than the GI murders in Mosul — polls show that the war is increasingly a political liability for the White House. Efforts are accelerating to put a new Iraqi government in place.

Bringing the troops home, however, will be a long time in coming. As long as Saddam Hussein remains at large, Bush will keep a sizeable fighting force on the ground.

His insistence that occupying Iraq is central to the war on terrorism grows more preposterous by the day. Saddam has disappeared, but the much larger evil of al Qaeda has been lethally busy in Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Pakistan.

Meanwhile, bin Laden himself is still alive and making dire threats. He’s certainly not in Iraq, and nothing that happens in Iraq will bring us closer to catching him.

The grisly scene in Mosul last week recalled that infamous horror in Mogadishu a decade ago, when a Black Hawk helicopter was shot down and the mangled remains of U.S. servicemen were dragged through the streets by a celebratory mob.

An unseen enemy

It was a demoralizing episode for this country, but at least the soldiers in Somalia went down fighting. In Iraq the enemy is often unseen, indistinguishable from friendly civilians, and the shots and grenades come out of nowhere.

Troops who were trained to wage war are now courageously trying to wage peace. In such a role they must be visible and ubiquitous in a land where they aren’t universally welcome.

The results have been deadly though not unanticipated. The question for Bush is how long before the American people decide that the best exit plan is to elect a president with an exit plan.

Carl Hiaasen was born and raised in South Florida. He joined The Herald in 1976 and worked as a general assignment reporter, magazine writer and award-winning investigative reporter before starting his column in 1985. He is also the author of many novels, including Basket Case, Sick Puppy, Tourist Season and Strip Tease, which was made into a feature film starring Demi Moore and Burt Reynolds. Hiaasen’s column appears regularly on the Other Views page. Visit Carl’s Web site at www.carlhiaasen.com.