Mission: Imperfect

According to President Bush, the war with Iraq has been over for more than two months. But the dozens of families of soldiers killed since May 1 would likely tell you a different story.

Three more soldiers were killed over Independence Day weekend, including one who was buying a soda at a student center. On Sunday, The Washington Post published photos of the soldiers who have died since the Iraq War "ended." Many of them were in their early-to-mid-20s. Meanwhile, those Iraqis aligning themselves with the United States also face danger: Last week, seven U.S.-trained Iraqi police officers were killed in an Iraqi-led attack.

Saddam Hussein, wherever he is, is taking credit for some of these attacks, according to an audiotape released last week by al-Jazeera, the Arab satellite television channel. Because we can't seem to find the alleged weapons of mass destruction, attempting to find Hussein would be a logical next step. As one Iraqi citizen told The Washington Post, "When the American soldiers first came to Baghdad, we thought we would never hear from Saddam again. We thought he would be killed or he would flee the country. Now we know he is in our midst -- and that is very dangerous for us." Until Hussein is captured, the situation overseas will be nothing short of dangerous for everyone there. As the headline of the Post story said, "Many Iraqis Fear Hussein is Plotting Return to Power."

You would think that the rising number of dead Americans would cause Bush to be both bolder in trying to ascertain Hussein's whereabouts and more cautious when talking about the troops whose lives are still at risk. Not so. Using tough Texas language last week, Bush said, "There are some who feel that the conditions are such that they can attack us there. My answer is: 'Bring 'em on.'" That's not exactly the kind of a message you want to send to Iraqis who don't mind dying to kick out what Hussein has reportedly called the "infidel invaders."

Hussein has been relatively quiet until now, but with these recent strikes, his willingness to speak out and the severity of the attacks is only likely to increase. As one officer told The Washington Post, "If you talk to the guys in Iraq, they will tell you that it's urban combat over there. They all are saying, 'What we have is not enough to keep the peace.'" This certainly isn't the image we thought we'd be seeing after the war. We thought we'd have the cooperation of the Iraqi people (remember the cheering as Hussein's statue was toppled?) and that keeping the peace would be easy (after all, by then our soldiers would have survived biochemical attacks). Many of the soldiers sent to Iraq probably thought they'd spend the Fourth of July weekend grilling hamburgers with their families at home, not shooting at the enemy abroad.

That's a problem not only for President Bush, who plans to make national and homeland security the centerpiece of his 2004 re-election campaign, but also for a military that relies on volunteers to constitute its troops. It's going to be harder to find people to join the military if they think that their leaders don't have a battle (or post-battle) plan.

One of my best friend's relatives is currently in Iraq. I don't know my friend's relative but I do know his name. Every time the newscasters announce the names of those who have died, I listen for his. And this is the behavior of someone many steps removed from the front lines. I can't imagine what it must be like for a mother, father, wife, husband, sister, brother, daughter or son.

The Bush White House prefers that Americans remember a neat end to fighting in Baghdad -- the image of Bush flying onto the aircraft carrier, meeting and greeting the troops aboard, and speaking to the nation with a sign reading "Mission Accomplished" behind him. It's unfortunate for everyone that the mission hasn't yet been accomplished. As the president takes credit for winning the Iraq War, we must not forget our troops who are still fighting -- and dying -- to make sure that the war actually does end, that Hussein is captured, and that the Iraqis can enjoy the freedom and democracy we promised them when the war began.

Mary Lynn F. Jones is a Prospect senior editor.