Safety in Iraq is becoming a responsibility U.S. can’t handle

Editorial

Was it only two weeks ago that the United States killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, the Iraqi government finally got all its ministers in place, and things seemed to be looking up? It is hardly a surprise that al-Qaida or other insurgents would unleash a wave of violence in reprisal for the Zarqawi killing, but things seem particularly grim in Iraq just now.

The recovery of the bodies of two American soldiers, apparently tortured and mutilated beyond recognition, highlights the cruelty and brutality of the enemies of U.S. occupation and the newly formed Iraqi government.

Wednesday, one of Saddam Hussein’s defense lawyers was slain, a car bomb killed at least three people and wounded eight in Sadr City, 85 Iraqi workers were abducted as they left work at an industrial plant near Baghdad, and militants vowed to kill four Russians they abducted June 3.

A sad background to all this is a cable from the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad to Washington, sent about the same time President Bush made his surprise visit to Baghdad, and reprinted Sunday in the Washington Post. It told of poor living conditions and increasing tension among Iraqi employees of the Embassy. Women are harassed about the way they dress. Most employees get only an hour of electric power at home for six hours without. Of nine employees only four had even told their families they worked at the U.S. Embassy for fear of their lives. The Embassy now shreds documents that show the surnames of Iraqi staff members.

Ethnic tensions, according to the cable, are increasing, to the point that “(a)n Arab newspaper editor told us he is preparing an extensive survey of ethnic cleansing, which he said is taking place in almost every Iraqi province, as political parties and their militias are seemingly engaged in tit-for-tat reprisals all over Iraq.” Iraqi employees report that informers are commonplace “as Iraqi security forces fail to gain public confidence.” Furthermore, “The central government, our staff says, is not relevant; even local mukhtars have been displaced or co-opted by militias. People no longer trust most neighbors.”

That’s a raw view from the ground, and it may be colored by the fears and hostilities that Embassy employees, being targets, can’t help but notice. But Embassy employees, with a job with a steady paycheck, are probably better off than most Iraqis. It is hard to imagine what daily life is like in besieged cities like Ramadi, which are too dangerous for reporters to cover regularly.

Not all the news from Iraq is bad. Some areas are relatively peaceful, the government is beginning to function, and Iraqi security forces are being trained and gradually becoming more effective. Electricity availability is near pre-Saddam levels, but demand is even higher. Oil production and revenue are rising, accelerated by higher gas prices. But the challenges are immense, and, ultimately, they will have to be met by the Iraqi people.

It would be neither healthy nor even possible for the United States to maintain primary responsibility for Iraq’s safety for a prolonged period.