The latest sectarian violence in Iraq has raised questions about the future of the U.S. mission to establish a secure and democratic country, three years after U.S. troops invaded Iraq to overthrow dictator Saddam Hussein. As part of our series marking the third anniversary of the invasion, VOA's Bill Rodgers reports on the challenges ahead for the United States and Iraq.
It was called "Shock and Awe" -- the overwhelming force used in the March 2003 invasion of Iraq that enabled U.S. troops to quickly achieve their objectives. The regime of Saddam Hussein easily collapsed and the former dictator was captured some months later, hiding ignominiously in a hole in the ground.
Other successes followed when Iraqis went to the polls in three separate elections despite terrorist threats. The latest election, in December, was held to choose a parliament and it attracted large numbers of Sunni Arabs who had boycotted the first vote in January 2005.
Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute says these accomplishments should not be minimized. "At this point, a new political system is taking root, we've had three successive polls, elections, and Iraqis, the vast majority of them, are looking forward to getting on with their lives."
But insurgent violence threatens this progress, with suicide bombings and other attacks taking a heavy toll on Iraqi civilians.
To counter this, the U.S. strategy is to train Iraq's military and police to assume a greater role maintaining security. But analyst Tamara Wittes of the Brookings Institution says training alone will not be enough.
"It is not enough if you have trained men with weapons on the ground, they have to have the whole infrastructure of government behind them. They have to have effective decision-making, they have to have reliable budgets to pay salaries and purchase equipment and they have to have an effective chain of command that's not tainted by political squabbling or corruption. So if the government institutions aren't working, the army can't work either."
Forming a permanent, inclusive government will be key for Iraq's future. Last December's vote was largely along sectarian lines, and while Shi'ite and Kurdish coalitions won the most seats in parliament they do not hold an absolute majority needed to govern. The United States, through its ambassador in Iraq, has been pressing for the creation of a national unity government that would include Sunni representatives.
But it has encountered resistance, says James Jeffrey, the State Department's special Iraq Coordinator. "People who have power don't want to give it up," he says. "The Shia did very well in both elections, but particularly in the first of them, which is why they have so many positions in the current government. The Sunni Arabs did very well for hundreds of years dominating a country whose population is largely not Sunni Arab. But all of these folks have to learn they are going to have to share power with other people."
However, attempts at unity were undermined by the February 22nd bombing of the sacred Shi'ite mosque in Samarra, which unleashed the worst sectarian violence since the downfall of Saddam Hussein. Retaliatory attacks were carried out against Sunni mosques while bodies of Shi'ite and Sunni civilians piled up at morgues.
If there is widespread sectarian violence, James Jeffrey says it will affect any U.S troop withdrawal plans. "What we have said is that, if the conditions permit, and I underline that, there could well be further withdrawals in the course of this year. But there's been no decision taken, there's no level of concreteness to possible plans or possible force levels, and again everything is dependent upon the conditions on the ground."
Quelling the insurgency, made up mainly of disaffected Sunnis but also of foreign fighters led by terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, may be long and arduous task -- as the United States learned in Vietnam.
And some observers, such as Marina Ottoway of the Carnegie Endowment, are pessimistic about the U.S. mission in Iraq.
"If we look at what has been happening, there does not seem to be much progress in forming a government and sectarian violence is increasing in the country, so that suggests we are not following a winning strategy," she told us.
The Bush administration clearly thinks otherwise, and remains determined to give the Iraqi government time to strengthen all of its institutions, including its security forces, to ensure stability.