The deaths of 16 U.S. soldiers Sunday in the downing of a Chinook helicopter outside Baghdad add urgency to the White House's efforts to rebuild Iraqi military and security forces that can ease the burden on American troops. The helicopter crash, apparently caused by a surface-to-air missile, caused more casualties than any other single incident since the beginning of the war, but it represented only one element of an escalating guerrilla campaign targeting U.S. forces, friendly Iraqis and international aid groups.
Politically as well as militarily, lowering the profile of the American occupation is vital to the success of the Iraq mission. U.S. authorities made a mistake when they dismantled the 500,000-strong Iraqi army after toppling Saddam Hussein's regime. Purging the Iraqi military of war criminals and top officials of Hussein's Baath party was essential. At the same time, though, tens of thousands of ordinary Iraqi soldiers who had offered no resistance to U.S. forces were cut loose. They could have provided the foundation for a reformed Iraqi security force capable of handling many of the dangerous peacekeeping duties U.S. troops have been forced to assume. Instead, some of them, left without honest work, have become criminals or guerrillas.
When the decision was made to dismantle the Iraqi military, U.S. authorities were underestimating the continuing need for occupation troops and overestimating the postwar help that would come from the international community. Now the Bush administration acknowledges that the U.S. occupation is in for what Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld calls "a long, hard slog," with no appreciable military help coming from other nations. That leaves a reconstituted Iraqi security force as our only reasonable option for relieving U.S. troops.
U.S. authorities already have accelerated the job of rebuilding the Iraqi army. Thousands of Iraqis are being retrained, and one battallion has been activated under a U.S. commander. As their numbers grow, the Iraqi forces can give credibility to the provisional Iraqi government and leave U.S. troops less vulnerable to attack.
Still, the pace of the transition to Iraqi troops should be dictated by military conditions in Iraq, not by political conditions at home. President Bush promises to "stay the course," but the White House seems increasingly sensitive to the political implications of mounting casualties.
The White House's strained efforts to diminish the impact of the casualties and distance the president from the dead and wounded are futile. Instead, the administration should level with the public about the human and monetary costs of our occupation in Iraq, and about the realistic plans for bringing it to a successful conclusion.