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Iraq Journals

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Thursday, May 6

U.S. campaign in Iraq teetering on free fall

By John Yaukey | GNS

WASHINGTON - The U.S. campaign in Iraq has hit a low point, and it could go lower.

The past several days have seen a hemorrhaging of American credibility in Iraq and across the Arab world with a widening scandal involving Army guards who allegedly sexually abused and tortured Iraqi prisoners.

That public relations calamity will take center stage Friday on Capitol Hill as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld faces questions from lawmakers who want to know how such treatment was allowed to happen.

The scandal comes as insurgents in Iraq have fought American troops to a standoff in Fallujah and Najaf, threatening a security crisis. Those battles helped make April the deadliest month of the war so far, claiming 137 American lives.

``The circumstance we find ourselves in Iraq I think is ... still redeemable, but the degree of difficulty in accomplishing our mission, I think, has been made extraordinarily more difficult,'' said Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, senior Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee.

So how could it get worse?

If the half dozen U.S. investigations into the prisoner scandal uncover a pattern of abuse rather than isolated incidents, the occupation forces could face a crisis of authority and possibly high-level resignations.

On the security front, if the insurgents are allowed to view their success in holding off U.S. troops in Fallujah and Najaf as victories, rebellion could spread.

The problem with the loss of credibility and security is that it's American troops who pay most dearly for it.

``The stakes could not be higher for the 135,000 American soldiers now serving in Iraq,'' Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., warned fellow lawmakers Wednesday.

Meanwhile, U.S. troop levels in Iraq will remain higher than expected, while costs continue to rise as the Bush administration prepares to ask Congress for $25 billion more for Iraq. Congress has already approved $150 billion in extra spending for the war.

Damage control

The frantic scrambling to control the damage this week said more about the state of affairs in Iraq than any pundit or politician could.

Bush bowed to international pressure Thursday and apologized for the abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad, saying he was ``sorry for the humiliation suffered by the Iraqi prisoners.''

On Wednesday, Bush sat down with Arab television for twin interviews, condemning the behavior of American prison guards. His administration and top military commanders in Iraq spent Wednesday effusively apologizing.

Army Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, in charge of cleaning up the U.S. Army-run prisons in Iraq, announced that the Abu Ghraib prison population would be reduced. He also banned the use of dehumanizing hoods for prisoners. So far, six soldiers have been charged in the Abu Ghraib scandal and as many officers have been reprimanded.

That said, the Bush administration's insistence that the scandal is being aggressively investigated has been seriously undermined by the fact that neither Rumsfeld nor Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had read a detailed report on the abuses when it was completed in March.

The 53-page report by Army Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba describes numerous instances of ``sadistic, blatant and wanton criminal abuses'' of Iraqi detainees by American troops. It was done to soften up prisoners for intelligence interviews.

What's more, the revelation that there are a thousand photographs documenting the abuses supports the suspicion by some lawmakers that detainee mistreatment was more pervasive than Bush administration officials have let on with claims the incidents were isolated.

All this raises questions Rumsfeld is sure to face Friday, including how pervasive the abuse was, who knew about it and how far up the chain of command it was sanctioned.

Although Bush publicly defended his defense secretary and said he is not considering Rumsfeld's resignation, the answers to those questions could make it unavoidable.

Even staunch administration allies are fuming.

Senate Armed Services Chairman John Warner, R-Va., a former Navy secretary and Marine, had to fight back almost visible anger after a briefing on the prisoner abuses.

``This is as serious a problem of a break down in discipline as I have ever observed,'' he said.

Perilous security

When the Sunni and Shiite revolts in Fallujah, west of Baghdad, and Najaf to the south, flared up in April, Bush vowed to crush them.

"Our decisive actions will continue until these enemies of democracy are dealt with," the president boldly declared in mid-April.

Both rebellions are still alternately raging.

Bombarding the Shiite holy city of Najaf and massive civilian casualties in Fallujah would almost certainly enflame a wider rebellion.

But until both are secured, U.S. forces must concede they still don't control important pieces of Iraq. And the insurgents can claim a victory.

Without security or credibility, U.S. civil authorities in Iraq face a daunting challenge as they attempt to transfer sovereignty to an Iraqi government June 30 and begin the long process of getting the United States out of Iraq.