The bipartisan scrutiny has grown to such a level that Deputy Secretary of Defence Paul Wolfowitz recently did something administration officials rarely do: he acknowledged that mistakes have been made.

 

When asked during a Senate foreign relations committee hearing whether the Pentagon had done anything wrong in planning the post-war occupation, Wolfowitz conceded that the de-Baathification policy was implemented "too severely", and said Iraqi resistance fighters were "much tougher people than anyone imagined".

 

"We did not properly estimate the resilience of the regime that terrorised this country for 35 years," Wolfowitz said.

 

Amid mounting revelations of prisoner abuse by the US military, many elected officials and foreign policy experts in Washington are driving home the notion that the Bush team is disoriented and struggling to develop its declared goal of a stable, democratic Iraq.

 

Forward vision

 

Senator Joseph Biden, a Democrat from Delaware repeatedly asked Wolfowitz and Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage: "What is the mission?"

 

"The president must articulate a single, overarching goal that everyone can understand," Biden said.

 

Bush is yet to give a clear idea of
how sovereignty will be handled

The administration, however, does not appear to have a cohesive sense of how to proceed once nominal sovereignty is transferred to Iraqis on June 30, according to a recent column by Robert Kagan, considered by many to be one of the top neoconservatives in Washington.

 

"All but the most blindly devoted Bush supporters can see that Bush administration officials have no clue about what to do in Iraq tomorrow, much less a month from now," Kagan wrote in The Washington Post.

 

With just five weeks remaining until an Iraqi interim authority takes over the reigns of power, questions linger as to how independent that government will be.

 

"It has never been quite clear what sovereignty meant," said Republican Senator Richard Lugar, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

 

Armitage said much depended on the make-up of the new interim government, which is currently being "winnowed down to 30 names" by United Nations envoy Al-Akhdar al-Ibrahimi.

 

Armitage said that list would likely be completed by 1 June, followed by "a month or so, roughly, to work with the Iraqi interim government to make it clear what sovereignty means".

 

Restrictions

 

When pressed to explain how much decision-making authority the interim government would have, Wolfowitz said the new powers would be extensive, but not unlimited.

 

"I think Iraqis probably want to take more responsibility, but not too much," he said.

 

"I think Iraqis probably want to take more responsibility, but not too much"

Paul Wolfowitz,
deputy secretary of defence

The Transitional Administrative Law, a document written by the Iraqi Governing Council, will provide a framework for running the country until a transitional government is elected next year.

 

Although the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) will cease to exist after 30 June, Wolfowitz made it clear that its influence will remain an underlying factor in the months ahead.

 

"The laws and regulations of the CPA will remain the laws and regulations of the interim government" unless otherwise amended, he said.

 

Pulling out

 

With recent polls indicating that a growing number of Iraqis want US troops to leave Iraq, speculation has centred on how the Bush administration would respond if the interim government demanded a full military withdrawal.

 

Both Armitage and Secretary of State Colin Powell have said the US would comply with any such request.

 

"The answer to that has to be yes," Armitage said.

 

Still, what the potential US response would be in the unlikely event of edict from the Iraqi interim government is unclear, some experts said.

 

"I think it is very unlikely that the Iraqis will make that request," said Gideon Rose, managing editor of Foreign Affairs, a bimonthly journal published by the Council on Foreign Relations.

 

Rose said the situation in Iraq, politically and militarily, has degenerated to the point where the administration is now faced with the prospect of finding the "least bad" option for achieving security and transferring sovereignty.

 

The deteriorating situation leaves
the occupation with few choices

"You have lowered expectations, now the question is can you deliver on those lowered expectations," he said.

 

Lawmakers and analysts alike agree that quashing the resistance is the key to meeting whatever American expectations exist for a future Iraq.

 

Senators at the committee hearing asked if sending more US troops to Iraq is the answer if the administration is unable to convince the UN or NATO to contribute an additional security force.

 

Vague answers

 

Senator Russ Feingold, a Democrat from Wisconsin, asked Wolfowitz for "at least a reasonable estimate" of how long US troops would need to be in Iraq and how long it would take to train Iraqi security forces to take over the peacekeeping duties.

 

Wolfowitz refused to offer specifics. "The course of war is simply not something that can reasonably be determined," he said.

 

Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld has said the US would probably need to retain its current troop level of 135,000 until the end of 2005.

 

The unwillingness of administration officials thus far to provide more detailed projections on troop levels and reconstruction costs has provoked some scepticism in Congress on both sides of the aisle.

 

"My concern is that are we really levelling with the American people," said Republican Senator George Voinovich of Ohio.

 

Senator Barbara Boxer, a Democrat from California, said she was "disappointed" in the testimony of Wolfowitz and Armitage, saying the administration appeared to be out of touch with US public opinion.

 

"Listening to you, one would never know what is happening in America," Boxer said, referring to recent polls showing that an increasing number of Americans disapprove of the administration's handling of Iraq.

 

Survey

 

In a Time/CNN poll taken from 12 to 13 May, 55% of the respondents said President Bush was doing a poor job of managing the Iraq situation. Almost half said they disapproved of the current military policy in Iraq.

 

"Iraqis fear we harbour long-term imperial intentions toward
their country"


Larry Diamond,
senior fellow, Hoover Institution

Biden said these attitudes must be addressed with a more visible strategy for success that the US public can understand.

 

"It ain't going to work without the informed consent of the American people," he said.

 

Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution who previously served as an adviser in Baghdad to the occupation authority, told senators at a second hearing of the foreign relations committee that the administration had taken some positive steps recently to fill what he called the "legitimacy vacuum" in Iraq.

 

By giving the UN more of a leading role in the transition process and sticking to the 30 June deadline for handing over sovereignty, the administration improved the international credibility of the mission and gave Iraqis greater motivation to fight for democracy, Diamond said.

 

He urged the US, however, to end talk of "limited sovereignty" and to disavow "any long-term military aspirations in Iraq".

 

"Iraqis fear we harbour long-term imperial intentions toward their country," he said in written testimony. "This would help allay this fear."

 

Ultimately, the US must convince the Iraqis themselves to take the lead in pushing the process forward, Biden said.

 

"We cannot want freedom for the Iraqi people more than the Iraqi people want it," he said.