Before the surprise early transfer of power to a “sovereign” Iraqi government on June 28, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz told the House Armed Services Committee that the interim government was “prepared to step up to its responsibilities.”  He emphasized that the White House plan would shift the burden of rebuilding Iraq and fighting insurgents to the interim administration, setting up its own replacement by an elected government in January 2005.  Pressed by Rep. Ike Skelton (D-MO), however, Wolfowitz admitted that “it’s entirely possible” that U.S. forces could be in Iraq for years to come, a possibility that seemed to be supported by the testimony of Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  Pace told the panel that “we should expect more violence, not less” in the immediate future.  Indeed, even as the panel met, insurgents were stepping up attacks against U.S. forces and their allies across Iraq, while some media reports described anti-occupation hotbed Fallujah as Iraq’s de facto second capital, a “green zone” for insurgents, according to one AP report.

Meanwhile, radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr was momentarily eclipsed in media stories by Jordanian-born Islamic radical Musab al-Zarqawi, whose jihadist group claimed responsibility for the gruesome beheadings of American Nicholas Berg and South Korean hostage Kim Sun-il.  Zarqawi also threatened to assassinate Iraq’s interim prime minister, Iyad Allawi.  Washington has put a ten-million-dollar bounty on Zarqawi’s head, but few experts appear to believe that killing him would stop the insurgency.  U.S. counterinsurgency advisor Prof. Ahmed Hashim of the Naval War College, for example, saw an “Islamo-nationalist fusion” taking place in Iraq.  As reported in the Financial Times, Hashim described the chaotic situation as a combination of “incipient civil war,” “ethnic cleansing,” tribal warfare, and score-settling among criminal gangs involved in drug trafficking and prostitution.  (By all accounts, crime is exploding across Iraq.)  In the same report, military analyst Andrew Krepinevich stated he did not think the security situation would improve by next January, putting the scheduled elections in doubt.  U.S. forces, according to Krepinevich, were performing well “at the tactical level,” but “the operational level has been a disaster.”  He concluded by saying that the insurgents were “making substantial progress on winning over the population.”  Time, it seems, is on the insurgents’ side: They lack resources but not motivation, even as support for the war erodes in the United States.

Indeed, most observers seem to agree that the United States is losing the critical battle for the “hearts and minds” of Iraq’s population.  In mid-May, a poll commissioned by the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) showed that more than 80 percent of the respondents lacked confidence in the occupation authorities and that 55 percent said they would feel safer if coalition forces left Iraq, while  a similar margin saw the behavior of U.S. soldiers at the Abu Ghraib prison as typical of that of U.S. forces across the country.

The interim government of President Sheikh Ghazi al-Yawer and Prime Minister Allawi faces tremendous challenges: The “sovereignty” of the new government is mostly cosmetic, and any support base the interim regime has is probably quite narrow.  The interim government will depend on the United States for money, as it lacks control over funds generated by Iraq’s oil industry; it has no power to rescind decrees made by CPA chief Paul Bremer; and occupation forces will remain in the country, as the interim government lacks effective armed forces of its own.  By most accounts, the CPA has been a dismal failure, leaving chaos in its wake.  One U.S. officer told the Independent’s Patrick Cockburn that his men had referred to the U.S.-backed CPA as “the League of Frightened Gentlemen,” ensconced behind the concrete walls of their Baghdad headquarters, isolated from the population.  To the extent that the interim government is identified with the CPA, it lacks legitimacy.

At the same time, Iraq has become a magnet for jihadist forces, becoming what the Pentagon might call a “target-rich environment”: Experts have seen a recruiting boom for jihadist groups that started at the beginning of the Iraq war.  Iraq, unlike Afghanistan, is home to numerous holy sites for Muslims.  As the anonymous author (reportedly a high-ranking CIA veteran who once headed the agency’s efforts against Osama bin Laden) of a new book (Imperial Hubris) on the “War on Terror” told NBC News, the invasion of Iraq was a “Christmas gift” Bin Laden had “always wanted and never expected to get.”  The war “validated” what radical Muslims had said about “American aggressiveness against Islam.  It made us the occupiers of the second holiest place for Muslims in the world.  In fact, now we are occupying, in the eyes of our opponents . . . the two holiest places . . . the Arabian Peninsula and Iraq, and the Israelis are occupying the third, in Jerusalem.”

Many observers have pointed out the errors and miscalculations of the CPA and the Iraq war planners.  Wolfowitz, for example, has admitted that planners underestimated how tenacious the anti-occupation resistance would be.  The real error, however, appears to have been the decision to invade and occupy Iraq in the first place.  The United States may be entangled in Iraq for some time to come.