Should they stay or should they go?

BushThe Washington administration has taken several rather unprecedented steps to improve urgently the situation in Iraq. US President George Bush made a surprise visit to Baghdad for a turkey dinner with American soldiers on Thanksgiving Day. He spent two and a half hours surrounded by 600 American GIs attempting to raise their spirits in the wake of the heavy losses sustained by the American army in the last few months.

American casualties in Iraq have already surpassed 420 dead and 1,967 wounded. Moreover, the Americans have suffered the majority of these casualties since May 1, 2003, the day when Washington authorities announced the victorious conclusion of Operation Shock and Awe. The number of non-combat casualties is also on the rise. According to the American media, about 3,000 American servicemen have fallen victim to traffic accidents in Iraq. In addition, 4,000 soldiers have been sent home because of various ailments, including 504 cases of mental problems and 378 cases of neurological disorders.

The Iraqi population has been affected even worse. According to various estimates, about 55,000 Iraqi citizens, including 10,000 innocent people, died in the course of the recent Gulf War.

The country is overflowing with foreign troops. There are 130,000 American, 11,000 British, 2,500 Polish, 300 Ukrainian, 50 Italian, 50 Spanish soldiers, and even several detachments of Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian troops. Military operations against Iraqi rebels, involving armoured units, bombers and attack helicopters, are continuing. Massive search-and-destroy operations are being conducted in Masul, Basra, Al Najaf, Tikrit, Kirkuk and Baghdad. More than 5,000 people have been arrested on suspicion of being members of "illegal" organisations.

New security raids, weapons' searches and resistance activists, intrusions into the houses of pious Muslims, even into women's quarters where only family heads can enter, as well as facial checks of their wives and daughters, continue. These actions evoke fierce, albeit hidden resentment among followers of Islam. In the day, local dwellers smile at the occupants, try to win their appreciation, whereas at night the same people take up sub-machine guns and grenade launchers, set up ambushes on busy thoroughfares, burn American trucks and armoured vehicles and shoot down US helicopters. The guerrilla war is gaining momentum.

The problem is the coalition forces simply cannot win this kind of war. Great Britain failed to do so in Afghanistan, Napoleon and Hitler - in Russia, and Soviet troops 100 years after the British - again in Afghanistan. The Americans already have similarly sad experience of futile efforts against guerrillas in Vietnam and Somalia. Indeed, they had to leave Mogadishu after three inglorious months in the capital, after a CNN report showed American officers' bodies being mutilated by the local population. It was the last straw for the then American administration.

It is unclear yet what level of casualties the present Washington administration is willing to pay for the risky plan to forcibly overthrow Saddam Hussein's regime and impose western values on a Muslim country. However, it is obvious that the Americans might have to withdraw their troops from the country soon.

Does the American administration have any options? Yes, it does. They have a choice to make a gradual and peaceful transfer of responsibilities as part of the peacekeeping operation in Iraq under the aegis of the UN Security Council. And not only its military component, but also most importantly, its economic component.

There should be a gradual substitution of American and British troops with NATO troops, "untainted" by the unfavourable reputation as occupiers, and even better by mostly troops from Asian and Pacific region. In particular, this means soldiers from India, Pakistan, Japan, South Korea, Australia and Indonesia. The involvement of Russian troops and military observers in peacekeeping operations could also be possible under certain circumstances. Neither Russian President Vladimir Putin, nor Russian Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov, has ever rejected this possibility.

The American troops will have to leave Iraq. It is, perhaps, much harder to take this courageous decision than spend a couple of hours in strict secrecy in occupied Baghdad. Nevertheless, such an extraordinary step will be much more effective and beneficial not only for the United States, but also for the entire global community.

Viktor Litovkin, RIAN

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Author`s name Petr Ermilin