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US is paying the price for bungling the war

"THE FRUIT of the poison tree" is an aphorism taught in law schools pertaining to search and seizure. It means that if a law enforcement officer does something wrong in the beginning of the process, if he should fail to have a proper warrant, for example, then everything following from that mistake is similarly tainted. I fear that we are seeing that doctrine coming true in the mother of all search and seizures, Iraq.

The problem of Saddam Hussein had to be addressed, and the high water mark of the Bush administration was getting United Nations Resolution 1441 passed unanimously in the United Nations Security Council and getting the arms inspectors back into Iraq. But then the mistakes followed, one upon the other.

The correct search and seizure procedure would have been to allow the inspectors' work to go forward, as the UN inspectors asked. Then the United States should have patiently gathered together a true coalition to garner the international legitimacy that confronting Iraq so sorely needed. Instead, the Bush administration brushed all this aside in its impatience to go to war. Compounding this lack of a proper warrant was the Bush administration's tampering with the evidence. It presented false and misleading intelligence to its own people and the world. The fruits of that have been poisoning the enterprise ever since.

Country after country that the Bush administration had been counting on said no, they would not help without international legitimacy. India said no to a request for occupation troops. So did Pakistan. Turkey wouldn't help in the war itself. The few allies who did sign on are now in trouble. Poland said it was misled, Spain now says it will withdraw its troops, others in the coalition are under pressure from populations that approve of the American invasion even less now than before the war began.

There are other poison fruits falling from the tree as well. It is becoming clearer that the obsession with Iraq hurt the struggle against Al Qaeda. The job in Afghanistan was left incomplete because of Iraq, and now both warlords and the Taliban are raising hell in the countryside.

In Iraq itself, the Bush administration bungled the war and is now paying the price. There were never enough troops to do the job, and there was never an adequate plan for what to do when the Iraqi regime collapsed. Although the State Department tried to warn the Pentagon of the difficulties ahead, the Pentagon wouldn't listen. Security was never established. Opening fire on civilians in the first days of the occupation of Fallujah poisoned the atmosphere in that Sunni city, and now the United States faces open rebellion.

Americans had presumed that the Shi'ites, who make up the majority of Iraqis and were persecuted by Saddam, would be with them. But recent events indicate that the presumption is in peril. And there seems to be no real plan for Iraq's future. To whom will power be handed when sovereignty is transferred?

The occupation authorities have tried to maintain that they were being opposed either by foreign fanatics or Saddam bitter-enders. But the idea that foreign fanatics could operate inside Iraq without Iraqi help was always absurd. To that list they have now added Shi'ite thugs. But it is becoming more apparent that anti-American violence can come from the general population, even from those who opposed Saddam.

The United States seems to thrash from one mistake to another. First Iraq is to have a constitution before elections, then it is not. It sends in one team only to pull it out in favor of Paul Bremer, who promptly committed one of the worst mistakes of the occupation, disbanding the Iraqi army. The United States spoke with contempt of the United Nations. Now it needs UN help. If there is a parallel with Vietnam, it is the overly optimistic comments of the high command that are beginning to seem as divorced from reality as did the old "5 o'clock follies" briefings in Saigon. Let us hope that the use of massive firepower, which is making the political situation worse, won't lead to the doctrine of destroying towns in order to save them.

Americans use Saddam's palaces for their headquarters, Saddam's prisons to incarcerate their own prisoners, and promote democracy by closing newspapers they don't like, all giving the impression to Iraqis that they have substituted one set of oppressors for another.

In the words of one Iraqi Governing Council member, who asked not to be identified: "I am afraid our American friends are destined to try every single wrong option before they get it right." I only wish I had confidence that this administration one day will get it right, but I worry that the fruit of the poison tree may be all that's put on the table.

H.D.S. Greenway's column appears regularly in the Globe. 

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