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. Iraqis voted in the first election in January 2005 to elect a transitional assembly. They went to the polls again last October to approve a constitution, and in December they voted for a parliament. These last two elections attracted large numbers of Sunni Arabs who had boycotted the January 2005 vote.
Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute says the significance of these elections 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," he said.
But insurgent violence threatens this progress, with suicide bombings and other attacks taking a heavy toll on Iraqi civilians. Between 28,000 to 32,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed in the conflict over the past three years, according to the Iraq Index compiled by the Brookings Institution in Washington.
To curb the violence, the U.S. strategy is to train Iraq's military and police, a force now numbering some 230,000, to assume a greater role in maintaining security. The Pentagon says the training is going well, and that the Iraqi army is increasingly capable of taking on the insurgents.
But analyst Tamara Wittes of the Brookings Institution says training alone will not be enough.
"For an Iraqi army to be effective at the function of defending the Iraqi people, of fighting a counterinsurgency, 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," she said. "They have to have effective decision-making, they have to have reliable budgets to pay salaries and purchase equipment and get it to where it needs to be, 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 Shiite and Kurdish coalitions won the most seats in the 275-member 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 James Jeffrey, the State Department's special Iraq coordinator, tells VOA the effort has encountered resistance.
"People who have power don't want to give it up," he said. "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 in something equal to their proportion of power in the population."
However, attempts at unity were undermined by the February 22 bombing of the sacred Shiite mosque in Samarra, which unleashed the worst sectarian violence in Iraq since the downfall of Saddam Hussein. Retaliatory attacks were carried out against Sunni mosques while bodies of Shiite and Sunni civilians piled up at morgues, many of them killed execution style.
Militias, most drawn up on ethnic or religious lines or even under seeming official cover, are believed responsible for some of the recent violence, especially the executions of civilians. Experts say the militias have emerged because U.S. troops and Iraq's security forces have been unable to impose their authority on the whole country.
Tamara Wittes warns they pose a danger for Iraq's future.
"While the issue of sectarian tension had not been fueling the insurgency up until recently, it may happen now that local communities which had been keeping some distance from the insurgency are being forced into their arms, because they feel threatened by the militias representing other communities," she said. "That is very unfortunate. It reminds me, in some ways, of the situation in the former Yugoslavia in the early 90's where communities did not support the extreme, nationalist claims of the militias felt compelled to embrace them and enjoy their protection, because there was no larger authority that could provide them with safety and security."
James Jeffrey of the State Department says the outbreak of sectarian violence is of grave concern, but doubts the situation in Iraq will deteriorate into civil war. He notes some of the violence has diminished and Iraqi security forces have been effective in curbing some of the attacks. However, he warns if there is widespread sectarian violence, it could affect any U.S troop withdrawal plans.
"What we have said, if the conditions permit, and I underline that, there could well be further withdrawals in the course of this year," he noted. "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."
One of those conditions will be quelling the insurgency, made up mainly of disaffected Sunnis but also of foreign fighters led by terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. This task may be long and arduous as the United States learned in Vietnam.
And some observers, such as Marina Ottoway of the Carnegie Endowment, have become pessimistic overall 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 said.
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.