Recent attacks in Iraq have, not surprisingly, triggered calls for more U.S. troops. But this is unnecessary. U.S. field commanders there say they have enough soldiers to handle the threats posed by the remnants of Saddam Hussein's Baathist regime and radical Islamic terrorists.
That doesn't mean the continuing violence isn't inflicting major political and psychological damage. The frequent ambushes and sniper attacks, punctuated by more deadly terrorist bombings, are intimidating Iraqis, undermining the morale of foreign and Iraqi security forces, and deterring Iraqis from cooperating with coalition forces.
But the problem isn't a lack of soldiers -- it's a lack of useful intelligence. And the reason for that is simple: We don't have enough effective Iraqi allies to help us battle Baathist and Islamic terrorism. Washington needs to involve Iraqis as much as possible in defeating these scourges, both of which threaten them more than the United States. After all, they will inherit postwar Iraq after the coalition forces go home.
Many already realize that, including Ahmad Chalabi, a leading member of the Iraqi Governing Council. "There is no need for more American or foreign troops in Iraq today," he said recently. "Only one force can defeat the Saddam Hussein network: the Iraqi people."
They also can help us distinguish friend from foe. "What we need is the ability to identify, locate and capture or kill the enemy that is trying to prevent freedom in Iraq," says Bernard Kerik, who oversaw the re-establishment of the Iraqi police force after the war. "No one can do that better than the Iraqis themselves."
Bringing in more U.S. troops also could jeopardize our long-term goal to transfer authority to a responsible group of elected Iraqi leaders. The nascent Iraqi government would find itself more dependent on American power and less able to defend itself against violent internal challenges.
Washington made a mistake when it dismantled the Iraqi army and security forces without involving the Iraqi opposition groups. The result: a chaotic vacuum in which the Baathist remnants, foreign jihadis and various criminal gangs have flourished.
But the Bush administration still can empower Iraqis to take ownership of their political future. It can recruit, train and deploy more Iraqi police and security personnel to supplement the 55,000 Iraqis now participating in five different security forces.
Approximately 35,000 of those are Iraqi police, many of whom lack equipment and training. The Coalition Provisional Authority, led by Ambassador Paul Bremer, plans to expand the police force by about 65,000 to 75,000 officers by the end of 2004. But local police are often out-gunned and subject to intimidation. (They live in the communities they patrol, which makes their families vulnerable to terrorist attack.)
That's why the United States should help Iraqis build a national police constabulary, similar to Italy's Carabiniere. Such a force would be much better equipped and trained than local police forces to deal with the terrorists and mafia-like criminal gangs that now infest Iraq.
The Coalition Provisional Authority should use close civilian supervision, initially by Americans but ultimately by Iraqis, to screen out Baathist sympathizers and assure that this internal security force doesn't become as predatory and repressive as its predecessors in Iraq.
Then, as the Iraqi police and internal security forces restore law and order, American troops can be withdrawn steadily from urban areas where they're vulnerable to terrorist attack and their operations constrained by the presence of civilians.
Coalition forces also should continue transferring security duties at hospitals, power plants, oil pipelines, schools, government buildings and other critical infrastructure to Iraqis as soon as possible. About 33 percent of U.S. troops deployed in Baghdad today are responsible for guarding buildings or other important facilities, down from 56 percent in July.
Smaller and lighter American forces, deployed away from population centers, would minimize friction with Iraqi civilians and require less logistical support -- which means fewer targets for terrorists. Also, the heavy armor formations needed for the initial invasion should be replaced gradually with lighter forces more suitable for small-unit search-and-destroy missions, fast reaction strikes, commando raids and intelligence-gathering missions.
Putting an Iraqi face on internal security operations is important not only for reducing demands on American troops but for reducing the friction inevitably generated by occupying troops, no matter how benign, in a foreign land.
The people best equipped to root out foreign terrorists and the stubborn remnants of Saddam's regime are Iraqis themselves. They will succeed with our help. But they don't need more American troops to do so.
James Phillips is a research fellow in Middle East affairs at The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org), a Washington-based public policy institute.
Distributed nationally on the Knight-Ridder Tribune wire