Carnage in Iraq

Sunday, May 15, 2005; B06

FOR THOSE WHO hoped that the formation of an Iraqi government last month would lead to something resembling peace, the past several weeks have brought sharp disappointment. Almost every day seems to bring reports of one or more suicide bombers or other terrorists killing dozens of Iraqi civilians, and with every bombing come more heartbreaking photographs and stories from grieving survivors. U.S. Marines sustain casualties in gritty combat against well-trained foes along the Syrian border, and U.S. fighters and contractors continue to fall victim to roadside bombs in other parts of the country.

The letdown is similar to that which followed the exhilaration of the Jan. 30 elections, the transfer of sovereignty to the interim government and the capture of Saddam Hussein. With each landmark event came predictions that the back of the insurgency would be broken, but each seems to have been followed, perhaps after a lull, by more ferocity. As in those previous periods, there are worrying questions about whether decisions in Washington have spread U.S. forces in Iraq too thin.

Senior officials deny any such deficiency and insist that overall trends remain positive. As evidence, they point to increasing numbers of useful tips coming from Iraqis that lead to arrests of insurgents; to progress in training Iraqi forces, which in some cases are successfully patrolling on their own or in combination with U.S. troops; and to the political process leading toward a new constitution.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld was not among those who forecast a waning of the insurgency in the aftermath of the election, though he was pressed by journalists to do so. "I don't expect that it will end the violence," he said on Feb. 1. But Mr. Rumsfeld said more recently that he does believe the Iraqis will defeat the insurgency eventually. He said it would be weakened by divisions between Baathists and al Qaeda sympathizers, by Iraq's political and economic progress, and most of all by Iraqis' realization that the insurgents have nothing to offer. "The Iraqis will prevail in the insurgency also because over time, it will become clearer and clearer that the insurgents have no plan; they have nothing other than killing people," Mr. Rumsfeld said. The nation's senior military adviser,

Gen. Richard B. Myers, went further in a press briefing April 26. "I think we are winning," said Gen. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "Okay? I think we're definitely winning. I think we've been winning for some time."

Given the record, it's fair to treat such claims with caution. The military failed to anticipate or prepare for any insurgency after Saddam Hussein fell. Previous measures of claimed progress -- the number of Iraqi troops trained, for example -- have proved unreliable. Intelligence about the insurgency remains disturbingly patchy; senior officers say they still have little understanding of the relative strengths of Iraqis and foreigners among enemy fighters or of connections between the two.

Yet, as the insurgents increasingly go after Iraqi civilians, one thing has become clear: Theirs is not, as many people maintained before the Jan. 30 elections, a struggle against American "occupation." It is a fight against a legitimate government trying to operate under the principle of self-rule -- and trying for the most part, notwithstanding terrible provocations, to include every ethnic group. As Mr. Rumsfeld said, their only strategy is butchery. That doesn't mean they are sure to lose; their barbarism can go a long way toward slowing the economic and political progress that Mr. Rumsfeld said is necessary. It does mean that the United States is right to help the Iraqis battle back