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Iraq Journals

Glimpses of life in a war-torn country by GNS national security correspondent John Yaukey and photo director Jeff Franko.


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Tuesday, March 4

Occupation of Iraq fraught with perils

By John Yaukey

WASHINGTON — Wars are easy to get into, the old maxim goes, and excruciatingly difficult to get out of.

With a war to oust Saddam Hussein seemingly imminent, lawmakers and experts are asking sticky questions about post-conflict Iraq, which many view as potentially more dangerous and damaging than the war itself.

Occupation of Iraq could be fraught with huge costs to the U.S. treasury and the United States‘ already tattered credibility abroad, especially if it is viewed as a unilateral American action.

"You need all hands on deck," said Roy Gutman, a senior fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace. "You need them from every ally, from every friend, from every country in the region. You don‘t want to be alienating people. You want to bring them into a common effort."

So far, only Britain and Australia have committed troops in any significant numbers.

A threadbare coalition would leave the United States paying for most of the occupation and reconstruction of Iraq until its oil economy could be jump-started. Various estimates put that beyond $100 billion.

Geopolitically, President Bush has sought to cast the war as something of a liberation movement, telling an audience in Washington on Wednesday night that "a new regime in Iraq would serve as a dramatic and inspiring example of freedom to other nations of the region."

But globally televised images of U.S. tank columns entering Baghdad, some experts fear, could have the opposite effect: confirming suspicions among many Arabs that Americans are embarking on a colonial foray into their sacred lands.

Some experts believe al-Qaida has ambitious plans specifically to exploit this and foment a new wave of hatred and terrorism toward Americans.

Time and money

Logistically, there is considerable debate about how long occupation forces would remain in Iraq after the initial combat is over and how much that would cost.

Some Pentagon officials say they hope to be able to withdraw U.S. troops in as little as 30 to 90 days after Saddam‘s ouster — but only if Iraq‘s military can be swiftly purged of his henchmen. That‘s the most optimistic scenario.

Some of the leading lawmakers on Capitol Hill believe the cost of occupying and stabilizing Iraq will be enormous, and will require as many as 75,000 U.S. troops in Iraq for up to five years.

In Bosnia, by comparison, U.S. troops made up only 17,000 of the 60,000 troops in the occupation force.

"They (Americans) should not be surprised when two years after a war they still see thousands, perhaps, tens of thousands, of American troops in Iraq," Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., cautioned recently. "They should not be sandbagged by a sudden choice down the road that requires them to choose between supporting our troops and paying for other priorities."

Dollar estimates for an invasion and occupation of Iraq have been something of a moving target.

A recent request for $95 billion by the White House to cover war costs supports early estimates that the combat phase itself would cost about $100 billion. Costs for a five-year occupation range from an additional $25 billion to $105 billion, according to the Washington-based Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

Some administration officials have played down the economic costs, arguing that Iraq‘s vast oil reserves — the second largest in the world — would quickly buoy its economy and offset U.S. costs.

"Iraq has huge oil reserves, so in some ways this is an easier problem for the international community than rebuilding Afghanistan," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld recently told lawmakers.

The Bush administration has largely dodged talk of any specific figures. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer recently told reporters that costs "will depend on a number of factors, among them what Saddam Hussein and his henchmen do."

Occupation hazards

U.S.-led forces in Iraq will have three major tasks once the fighting subsides: securing the vast oil fields, destroying Saddam‘s chemical and biological weapons and feeding Iraq‘s 22 million people. Stabilizing the population will be crucial to ensuring that the occupation appears as a humanitarian effort, but the confusion and devastation that follows combat is often when most civilians die in wartime.

"Most casualties occur after the conflict from displacement," said Kenneth Bacon, president of Refugees International.

According to humanitarian aid agencies, at least 16 million Iraqis — 60 percent of the population — rely solely on food distributed through their government. A war will initially collapse that network.

Some 10 million Iraqis — 5.2 million of them children — will need immediate food aid once a war begins.

War could create as many as 1.5 million refugees, adding to the 1 million Iraqis already without homes.

Some experts are convinced this will be blood in the water for al-Qaida, which will seize on the occupation to disrupt U.S. efforts in Iraq and build momentum in the Muslim world for a larger terrorist campaign.

"This is a spotlight for al-Qaida," said Daniel Byman, a professor of security studies at Georgetown University. "This is a moment when the world‘s cameras will be watching."