WASHINGTON – President Bush declared Friday that the Iraqi people faced a “moment of choosing” as his administration weighed whether its policies and its military were sufficient to shield a weak ally against a descent into civil war.
In a somber speech to military veterans, Bush said the coming days would be “difficult and exhausting” because of the sectarian fury unleashed by the bombing of a Shiite shrine. Nonetheless, he insisted the situation held reason for optimism, because Iraqis “want their freedom.”
While Iraq appeared calmer Friday under a strict curfew, the upheaval demonstrated the dearth of options and limits of U.S. power, both over the government in Baghdad and in the development of adequate security forces. The violence also made clear that the United States’ ultimate tool – its military forces – would be of narrow value in the event of all-out civil war.
“When it’s a fight of Iraqi Shia on Sunnis, our guys can’t get in the middle,” said one senior U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment. “It would all be up to the Iraqis.”
The upheaval posed a serious test for U.S. policy and suggested that the success of the central project of Bush’s presidency might no longer be in the administration’s hands.
In the event violence resumes, “There are very real limits to how much the United States can do,” said Daniel P. Serwer, a former State Department official at the U.S. Institute for Peace, a congressionally funded group that works to prevent conflicts.
When armed strife flared in Iraq nearly two years ago, the U.S. military strategy was clear: Dispatch troops to the trouble spots, launch major offensives in Iraq’s cities, and delay the planned departure of several U.S. brigades.
This time, the Pentagon is in a more delicate situation, with fewer options. With the Iraqi government just beginning to get its legs, U.S. Defense officials said the attack on the Samarra mosque could not have come at a worse time.
“This is extremely serious,” said one Defense official who makes frequent trips to Iraq and who spoke on condition of anonymity because of agency rules. “Whereas previous insurgent activity has most been aimed at making parts of Iraq ungovernable, this has split the government.”
Commanders in Iraq are determined to keep U.S. troops away from ethnic demonstrations and violent clashes to avoid provoking anger among Sunni and Shiite Iraqis.
“If we rapidly mass on a particular area, we could incite an incident. And we’re careful not to do that,” said Army Col. Jeffrey Snow, who commands the brigade of the 10th Mountain Division, based in western Baghdad, speaking by teleconference to reporters at the Pentagon.
The violence provoked questions about whether U.S. leaders would be willing or able to continue reducing the number of U.S. troops in Iraq this year. Some U.S. officials and congressional aides pointed out that continuing strife might convince Congress and the American public that U.S. troops shouldn’t be embroiled in a civil war and could increase the pressure for withdrawal.