At one point, Donald Rumsfeld is said to have become a little testy. It was October 10 and the U.S. Secretary of Defense had just landed on the deck of the USS John F. Kennedy aboard a C-2 Greyhound twin-engine propeller-driven cargo plane accompanied by 18 defense ministers from 18 "coalition partners" in the Iraq war. When someone from the accompanying media asked about the possibility of an increase in the number of U.S. troops fighting the insurgency there, he reportedly shot back, "There's a fixation on that subject! It's fascinating how everyone is locked on that." However, en route to the shipboard huddle Rumsfeld told U.S. commanders in Iraq that he may yet decide they need more U.S. troops over the next two months. He also complained about the inability to convince countries to send additional forces to provide security for an expanded U.N. presence in Baghdad.
According to the Associated Press, the session aboard the Kennedy convened "amid mounting concern in some quarters that the insurgency in Iraq is so widespread and violent that full and fair elections in January might not be able to go on as scheduled."
Troop strength was very much the subject of the gathering. The war is escalating and the secretary was looking for help.
It wasn't easy finding out which "Coalition" defense ministers met with Rumsfeld Oct. 10 in a windowless room in the bowels of the U.S. John F. Kennedy in the middle of the Arab Gulf. A number of the major media reports following the meeting gave the number -- 18 -- but didn't list them. They are: Albania, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Georgia, Hungary, Iraq, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Mongolia, Poland, Qatar, Romania, and Ukraine and Iraq. Nicaragua, Spain, Dominican Republic, Honduras, the Philippines, Thailand and New Zealand have already withdrawn their forces. For some reason South Korea which provides the third largest military contingent in the war wasn't represented aboard the Kennedy. The British Defense Ministry also wasn't there but, as we shall see, it had already received the message: we need help.
The problem is clear: With the exception of Poland, most of the other countries represented at the shipboard gathering have only token forces in Iraq and several already have, or are threatening to reduce their participation in the war effort. Furthermore, most of the governments sending troops are doing so in defiance of overwhelming popular opposition from their own people. No sooner had Rumsfeld arrived home than the leadership of Poland, which survived an Oct. 15 no confidence vote (in which the war was very much an issue) by 234 to 218, made it clear the country's commitment extended only another couple of months. A senior Defense Ministry official said Oct. 16, that "we hope to have the troops out by the end of the year. That, at least, is my hope."
Later, after Rumsfeld met with General George Casey, the US commander in Iraq, Casey told reporters they had not even discussed troop levels. Of course, that way neither of them could be asked what was said.
It was Casey who briefed the shipboard military chiefs via teleconference from Baghdad about the plan to take control of the areas of Iraq now off-limits to U.S. forces. He "gave a brief on the state of play in Iraq, the way forward and where we are," a Pentagon spokesperson said, and named 20 to 30 towns either controlled by insurgents or vulnerable, and laid out a plan of how to bring them under the control by New Years.
Military officials now speak openly about the aim of the air strikes being "pacification," implicitly acknowledging that what they are confronting is nothing less than a guerilla war. The "coalition forces" are engaged in a widespread counterinsurgency effort not very different than the European wars in Asia and Africa four decades ago and the U.S. war in Southeast Asia. Planes from the USS Kennedy are reported taking off on bombing raids over Iraq about 20 times a day. The war from the air minimizes coalition casualties. In a sense, it's a race against time. Launching full scale attacks before the U.S. Presidential election Nov. 2 is a problem but the objective is to bring the entire country under control before the Iraqi election scheduled for January.
Iraqi defense minister, Hazim al-Shalaan, sought to assure the gathered military chiefs that the country is not descending into ever greater chaos and violence. "Samarra is a sign of things to come, and Fallujah will soon be next," he said.
The Iraqi minister was referring to the supposed "coalition" victory in subduing that city last month. However, the city was re-taken with very little combat amid indications that the insurgent forces simply withdrew from the battle. What is taking place now -- and seems to be in the offing for the city of Fallujah -- is of a different and more ominous nature. What is being called the "carrot and stick" policy toward that city and other locales is really a threat not to the resistance fighter operating there but to the civilian populations. Residents are being told to either eliminate or turn over the insurgents or face further death and destruction. In order to back up the ultimatum, bombing raids in recent days have struck hotels, cafÃ©s and wedding parties, reducing buildings to giant craters in the ground and filling hospitals with non-combatant men, women and children. It is a practice that would appear to be in direct violation of the Geneva Convention on the conduct of war.
Military officials say the battle to control Fallujah and the other 20 to 30 cities and towns described by Casey has yet to begun in earnest. It is more than likely that will occur between the Nov. 2 election and the year's end. But maybe not. A British official told The Independent the attack might not wait until the U.S. vote.
An Administration effort to persuade Britain to reposition its troops south of Baghdad in order to free up U.S. troops for striking Fallujah has provoked a new political crisis for the already beleaguered Prime Minister Tony Blair. British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon ran into a buzz saw Oct. 18 when he tried to convince members of Parliament that the requested redeployment would be an "operational" rather than a "political" move. Members of Parliament from all sides of the aisles questioned Hoon intently on how long the operation would last, what would be the chain of command, what the move would mean for British troops under the recognized terms of engagement and the rules of the international criminal court.
It was ex-Conservative Party leader, Iain Duncan Smith, and the shadow defense secretary, Nicholas Soames, who queried Hoon as to whether British troops operating under U.S. rules of engagement could be subject to prosecution under international court rules. Labor Parliamentarian MP Dennis Skinner said by definition -- "If it's done before November 2, it's political. It's handing President Bush a lifeline." According to the Guardian, former shadow foreign secretary Gerald Kaufman received the largest cheers during the session when he said there was a risk that "UK forces risking their lives will be exploited in a US election."
According to the Guardian, the Secretary "refused to debate 'precise details' of the terms of the international criminal court if UK troops killed Iraqi civilians, but said, in reference to the previous restraint shown by UK peacekeepers in the south of the country: 'This will be less restrained if there is a direct threat to them.'"
On October 18, The Telegraph drew attention editorially to "confusion about the precise rules of engagement." "British forces in Iraq occupy a murky legal area between outright warfare and peace-keeping," the paper's lead article said. "They are at risk from lawsuits as well as bullets, especially since, unlike the Americans, they have been brought under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (ICC)."
"The US has also serially torpedoed attempts, through selective amnesties for example, to separate nationalist insurgents from jihadis who are opening a new front in their war against the west," the London-based Financial Times said editorially October 19.
"Now US forces are preparing an offensive against up to two dozen Sunni towns and cities, where on current practice they will use indiscriminate and disproportionate air power against dense urban areas, causing hundreds of civilian casualties.
"That is not something British forces, with a different military culture and rules of engagement, should be part of.
"It really is time to move the Iraq debate on, and to focus it on how to secure a decent future for Iraqis. That will not be achieved by Britain buying further into a failed US strategy, which appears to consist of digging the same hole deeper and wider. All that will lead to is an abyss."
Meanwhile, as the level of violence in Iraq continued to grow and threatened to explode on a far bigger scale, Secretary Rumsfeld continued to try to play it down. "What is being reported in the media for the most part, are the incidents of violence," Rumsfeld said at a press conference with Macedonian Defense Minister Vade Buckovski, Oct. 11. "In any city in the world there are every year hundreds of homicides. We seem not to see those on the front page of every newspaper every day. So while no one is going to say that things are perfect or things are peaceful -- they are not." Last summer, he told a press conference, "You've got to remember that if Washington, D.C., were the size of Baghdad, we would be having something like 215 murders a month," Rumsfeld said. "There's going to be violence in a big city."
Carl Bloice is a freelance journalist in San Francisco, California