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What I saw in Iraq

DURING A week in Iraq, I was witness to two humanitarian crises: one that the United States brought to an end by removing Saddam from power, another that the United States is helping to create by its refusal to face the fact that the stabilization and reconstruction effort is badly off track.

I visited the mass graves at Mosul where thousands of victims of the Ba'ath regime were buried, and I could not help feeling that the world waited too long to take tough action against Saddam.

Four months after the end of the war, family members of the Iraqis murdered under Saddam are still sifting through skeletons in search of their loved ones. They look for a scrap of clothing or a personal item that might tell them which bag of bones could be their father, brother, or child.

Compared to Cambodia or Rwanda, the number of Saddam's victims seems small. But nobody who has seen the stretch of desert where human beings were led to be shot and shoved into pits before being covered by bulldozers could fail to understand the gravity of Saddam's evil.

When I visited Iraqi hospitals and schools and talked to people on the street in the cities, I saw a different kind of human catastrophe in the making.

Most ordinary Iraqis feel their daily lives are worse than before the war. They are glad to be free of Saddam, but many live in homes without running water or electricity. I saw pervasive fear of escalating disorder and despair at a reconstruction that has badly stalled.

I visited a hospital where the wiring had been stripped out of the walls by looters and the tiles had been ripped off the floors. Premature babies were in incubators in a special ward, but their doctors did not have the medicine or equipment to help them survive.

My experiences in Iraq convinced me that we cannot afford to let the country continue to degenerate into chaos. The stabilization and reconstruction of Iraq is not only a moral imperative, but a practical necessity to avoid turning the country into a hotbed of anti-Western extremism.

The question is not whether to deploy more American soldiers or get our allies to add forces, but how to bring the right mix of people to the task.

We need more military police to help keep order, more civil affairs officers to guide the Iraqis in organizing basic government functions, more special operations commandos with experience in counterinsurgency operations, and more intelligence specialists to gather information.

If any facet of the Iraq project requires more bodies, it is the civilian-led reconstruction campaign. The US-led Coalition Provisional Authority is staffed by about 1,000 people. In Kosovo, with only 2 million people, the interim authority needed about 2,300 international staff. For 22 million Iraqis, our current staff levels are completely inadequate.

More international assistance would be a big help, but the main goal should be getting our allies to help provide troops with the skills and training that are most needed.

In Karbala, for example, Bulgarian soldiers recently relieved US troops, but the Bulgarians refused to take over the civil affairs functions performed by the Americans, such as training local police and supervising the schools.

Our military is not well-equipped to deal with these issues. The United States has only 37,000 military police, and 12,000 of these police are already in Iraq. We simply won't be able to send many more MPs without drawing on our allies.

Shortages of Arabic-speakers and experts on the region compound all of these problems. Someone has to fill these gaps right away, and our allies are the only realistic option.

Congress shouldn't try to micro-manage postwar Iraq. But the first barrier we must surmount is the Bush administration's stubborn resistance to any change in course.

From the start, the administration has been so tied to ideologically driven wishful thinking that it can't bring itself to admit that best-case scenarios have been overtaken by real-world events.

We have too much at stake in Iraq to allow the security and rebuilding effort to fall apart. Unless Congress forces the White House to get serious about rethinking its plan, the sacrifices our troops made to end Saddam's terror will be largely overshadowed by the ugly aftermath of our occupation.

Marty Meehan, a Democratic US representative from Massachusetts, is a member of the House Armed Services committee.

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