WASHINGTON, April 16 (UPI) -- Oh, what a week this has been. With just over 70 days left before the June 30 much-anticipated Great Handover of sovereignty back to Iraqis, the country erupted in unprecedented violence.
In fighting in the rebellious town of Fallujah as well as in other parts of the country with both Sunnis and Shiites, U.S. troops suffered more casualties in a few days than during the three-weeks of fighting it took them to reach Baghdad a year ago. More than 80 American GIs and probably as many as 700 Iraqis were killed. And we don't know how many "civilian contractors" have been caught in the deadly crossfire.
Foreign contractors working in Iraq constitute the second-largest foreign force in the country after the U.S. military, now numbering at about 135,000 troops.
There are -- or at least there were before the recent outbreak of fighting -- somewhere between 20,000 and 40,000 civilian workers in Iraq. Those civilians were brought in, lured by high financial incentives, to carry out a combination of tasks that include everything from driving supply trucks, building housing facilities for troops to provide security for other civilians driving the supply trucks, and building the houses.
In other wars, such as in Africa's colonial conflicts during the late 1950s and early 1960, these civilian contractors were simply called mercenaries. In today's more politically correct world, the term mercenary has been sidelined for the more acceptable PC "civilian contractor."
While the Pentagon or Britain's Ministry of Defense can provide exact breakdowns of their military personnel serving in Iraq, no one seems able to offer any exact figures on how many civilian contractors are engaged in the conflict. Nor does anyone seem able to offer any casualty figures for them.
One Pentagon source puts the number of security contractors -- that would be the ones carrying guns and doing military or protection-related assignments -- at about 20,000. An astounding figure indeed. That makes these "civilian contractors" the second-largest armed force operating in Iraq after the U.S. Army, placing them well ahead of even the British contingent who constitute the second-most important military group in the U.S.-led coalition. There are currently about 10,000 British troops serving in Iraq.
Almost all U.S. agencies -- the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Commerce Department, the Defense Department and the U.S. Army -- all have contractors working for them, or are administering contracts that have contractors working for them.
The four ill-fated Americans who were ruthlessly slain outside Fallujah earlier this month worked for Blackwater -- one such civilian contracting company.
As did the unfortunate truck driver, whose kidnapping was witnessed on CNN.
Meanwhile, as the violence continued, President George W. Bush maintained that this is proof that things are improving in the country and that the violence is the attempt by "terrorists" and agitators to upset the apple cart.
In his nationally televised press conference last week Bush reiterated over and over that he believed his task was to "change the world." The president feels so strongly about his mission that he repeated the phrase no less than four times during his 17-minute opening statement.
-- "A secure and free Iraq is an historic opportunity to change the world and make America more secure. A free Iraq in the midst of the Middle East will have incredible change."
-- "I also know that there is an historic opportunity here to change the world. And it's very important for the loved ones of our troops to understand that the mission is an important, vital mission for the security of America and for the ability to change the world for the better."
-- "It will change the world. A free Iraq in the midst of the Middle East is vital to future peace and security."
The president's optimism is to be applauded. However, one can't help questioning whether the increased violence in Iraq along with another important event that transpired this past week -- the president's unwavering support of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and the de facto annexation of a number of West Bank settlements -- will change the world, but in the wrong way.
If the president believes his unilateral support of Sharon's plan -- acting outside of the "road map" framework put together by the Quartet (the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations) -- is going to speed up peace in the Middle East, he forgot to ask the Palestinians, without whom, peace in the Middle East is hardly possible.
Here is what Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia had to say: "No one can renounce Palestinians' rights such as the right of return and the right to establish a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders. This is a flagrant bias toward Israel."
Chief negotiator Saeb Erekat pointed out, "Neither Bush nor Sharon has the right to negotiate on behalf of Palestinians, and they cannot simply change the international resolutions and legitimacies and signed agreements."
And the Islamic Jihad representative Khaled al-Batsh stated, "Neglecting the Palestinian refugees' right of return and legalizing the establishment and expansion of Jewish settlements on Palestinians' lands is just a declaration of war against our people."
The Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas, said that Bush's statements proved that hopes of reaching a comprehensive resolution with Israel under U.S. sponsorship were "mere illusions," adding that they were right about opposing peace agreements in the first place.
The view from other parts of the Arab world was not much brighter. The United Arab Emirates' al-Khaleej newspaper accused the U.S. president of having hammered the "last nail in the coffin of the peace process, put(ing) the entire region once again in danger, and (of loosing) ... minimum credibility, responsibility and morals."
London's al-Quds al-Arabi blasted Bush and accused him of "destroying all hopes for peace and stability in the region and the world."
The world is indeed changed this week, maybe not as the president expect, but it is changed nevertheless.