Saddam Hussein is alive and well and inside Iraq in the minds of his most dedicated followers.
In the dictator's name, they have launched guerrilla attacks on U.S. forces and aid shipments. They have reorganized into secret cells. They draw strength from the reluctance of the Bush administration to run a full-scale military occupation to deal with the jarring reality that the Second Gulf War is not yet over.
The swift U.S. battlefield victory over an Iraqi army that melted away is now being described by administration insiders as a "catastrophic success." As the phrase suggests, the speed of the Iraqi collapse helped create an appalling aftermath, in which a capable and compact U.S. war-fighting force has not been able to establish a credible pacification program.
That description is accurate -- as far as it goes. Getting more U.S. troops into Iraq and on city streets will help. But resolving the problems of postwar Iraq will require the Bush administration to cross a psychological Rubicon. It will have to admit that it has not yet destroyed the Baathist network that brutalized Iraqis for three decades and that continues to terrify them. President Bush will have to concentrate urgently on a task that too many Americans believe he has already accomplished.
Whether Hussein is actually alive and hiding or dead and gone is still debated within the administration. At least one of two bombing attacks aimed at him on the basis of CIA-supplied information did bodily harm to the dictator, non-agency sources say. But one official adds: "Having killed Saddam off twice in their reports, the agency may not have been as meticulous in picking up signs that he actually survived as you would have wanted."
U.S. intelligence initially tended to portray a wave of postwar attacks on coalition forces and civil disturbances as ad hoc, spontaneous events. But on May 16 a secret CIA memorandum pulled together a number of incidents involving former leaders in Hussein's Baathist Party and analyzed them in the same way that many Iraqis see them: as an organized, systematic guerrilla campaign to drive out U.S. forces.
That analytical delay compounded the problems created by the failure of the administration to train and deploy with the invasion force enough U.S. civil affairs officers and Iraqi exiles to act as guides and interpreters. This prewar political decision -- not to put exile forces on a par with renegade Baathist politicians and generals whom the CIA expected to be able to install in power -- has undermined postwar operations.
"The Iraqis saw that we were not prepared to be ruthless in dealing with their jailers and killers, who were reorganizing before their eyes. So, many of the people who could have helped us kept their heads down," said one senior U.S. official. "It is hard to blame them. Threats that Saddam will come back can be dismissed easily in Washington, but not if you live in Baghdad."
Another senior Bush aide would acknowledge only that "there may have been too much desire on our part not to look like an occupation force. We are meeting that problem by reconfiguring our military units there."
But the war is not over, as even the CIA now reports: Ex-Baathists declared the formation of a new national secret movement on May 1. In Mosul on May 12, the Iraqi Vanguard Organization established a network of cells for northern Iraq. The agency has also turned up evidence of a Baathist plot to force a halt to aid shipments by attacking Western and Iraqi relief workers. And so it goes.
The United States must now dedicate itself to a larger and more aggressive effort to root out the Baathist remnants as part of a military occupation that cannot be conducted on the cheap or the quick. The stronger the effort now, the shorter the time of occupation may eventually be.
This will require the White House to work more closely than it has with Congress, which must be involved in designing and funding a large effective occupation force. Sen. Richard Lugar's Foreign Relations Committee is the place to start that effort.
And in Iraq, the Bush team must now put into place a political process that transfers authority and responsibility to democratic Iraqi hands. That must be done sooner rather than later, and with a new clarity and discipline. Infighting continues: No sooner had Bush's new envoy, Paul Bremer, banned prominent Baathists from holding office than a State Department officer in Baghdad labeled his move "fascistic" to her colleagues. That's no way to run an occupation.