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Caught by surprise

A YEAR AGO, US Marines pulled down a statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad's Firdos Square. Today, America battles Iraqi insurgents not only in the Sunni Triangle but also in Baghdad's Shi'ite slums and throughout Southern Iraq. Only the Kurdish north remains solidly pro-American, and there are fewer than 300 coalition troops in all of Kurdistan.


This is not how George Bush and Dick Cheney thought it would happen. They expected that US troops would be received as liberators and showered with flowers. And some of this actually happened. I entered Baghdad on April 13, and when I visited the fallen Saddam statue a man sent his grandson off to pick marigolds for me from the public flowerbeds.

Even if America had done everything right, governing Iraq following 35 years of brutal dictatorship was certain to be a challenge. The Bush administration acted as if it would be easy and in so doing transformed a difficult mission into an unachievable one. The United States never recovered from its failure to prevent the looting at the start of the occupation, nor has it been able to devise -- and stick with -- a coherent strategy to transfer power to Iraqis. In 80 days, America is supposed to hand over sovereignty, but we still do not know to whom.

Thanks to the precision of US weaponry, American Marines entered a largely undamaged Baghdad on April 9. For a month thereafter, US forces stood on the sidelines as every important institution in Baghdad (except for the oil ministry) was looted and many burned. The cost of the physical damage was in the billions -- now being paid by US taxpayers. The psychological damage is proving irreparable. Occupations depend on the respect and cooperation of the occupied. Iraqis with whom I spoke saw the unchecked looting either as part of a US design to destroy them -- or as a reflection of our incompetence.

The looting was predictable (it took place during the 1991 uprising as well). The worst of it could have been prevented. The State Department prepared a list of top installations in Baghdad to be protected and sent it to the Pentagon. The Pentagon did nothing.

Pentagon planners assumed that Iraqi police and other civilian authorities would simply continue to function after the regime leadership had been destroyed. In fact, this was always highly unlikely. Iraqi police and other functionaries had no way to know how the new US authorities would treat them, and even more pertinently, whether they would become targets of vengeful Iraqis. Better to lay low, which most did. The United States had no Plan B in case the optimistic scenario did not work out.

The political transition has seen too many strategies and too little planning. The name given to the first office set up to run Iraq -- Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance -- suggests how ill prepared the Bush administration was for the task of administering the country. The office envisioned a US administrator supported by US officials heading each of Iraq's ministries. Because of bureaucratic warfare between the State Department and the Pentagon, these de facto ministers were still being selected the week the war began. Having no time to prepare and little experience with Iraq, they made costly mistakes.

Last-minute recruitments produced people who were poorly suited to their assignments. One key official was recalled the day her phone was installed. Others committed to serve only for a few months, and as soon as they learned something about Iraq, they were gone. The Iraq operation continues to be plagued by rapid turnover of key staff, with many now projected to leave with the June 30 handover.

Without the benefit of planning, the United States has had to make up political strategies as it goes along. I count at least five different strategies in the last year. Each has fallen apart. In early March, the administration congratulated itself on the signing of Iraq's interim constitution, a document it praised for its far-reaching human rights provisions. But the United States allowed no public input into this document, kept all the drafts secret, and is now surprised to find growing Iraqi opposition.

By the end of March, moderate Shi'ite leaders were saying that they would not respect key provisions if, as expected, they win elections planned for January. This puts them on a collision course with Iraq Kurds, who consider the same provisions essential. Civil war looms.

Moqtada al-Sadr, the Shi'ite extremist now leading the anti-American insurgency in the south, is a thug likely responsible for more than one murder. But, characteristically, America closed his newspaper, al-Hawza, without any plan for how to handle his likely violent response. By provoking Americans into killing Shi'ites, al-Sadr has enhanced his status and may succeed at his goal, forcing the moderate religious parties to take a more aggressive anti-American stance.

Over the last 20 years, I have documented the crimes of Saddam Hussein's regime, including the gassing of Kurdish civilians and mass executions. Considering the regime's human toll, I decided to support President Bush's war last year, and did so publicly. I have no doubt that, in spite of everything, Iraq is much better off without Saddam. But as an American, I feel betrayed by my own government's failure to plan for the day the statue fell.

Peter W. Galbraith, a former US ambassador to Croatia, was a consultant to ABC News in Iraq last April.

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