Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The Iraq war


David Reinhard

Four years. Yes, it's a longer conflict than Iraq war supporters anticipated, and it's not over yet. More difficult, too. The administration made its share of mistakes. Too few troops, faulty rules of engagement, leadership problems in Baghdad and Washington, foul-ups in Iraq's restructuring and reconstruction after Saddam Hussein's fall. The list is long and each item controversial. And the enemy, in and out of Iraq, proved more vicious as it murdered innocents at mosques, markets, soccer fields.

Yet, four years later, where does this leave us? Like the endless and equally contested debate over the case for going to war, nowhere. For better or worse—better, in many ways—we are where we are today.

And just where are we? Can this war be saved?

Militarily, the new counterinsurgency strategy—the surge—sends more troops to Baghdad and Anbar province to help Iraqi forces to provide security. It also involves more robust rules of engagement against all of Iraq's bad actors, al-Qaida, Sunni and Shiite.

Of course, you'd never know it when you listen to most Democrats and all anti-war critics. The only policy they consider a change of course is the change of course they favor—heading for the exits before the job is done. So politicians deny Bush has changed course in Iraq. Why let facts get in the way of a base-pleasing "bring our troops home" talking point?

But the new troops who have arrived already know there's a change in strategy. That's why they're fighting in Anbar or living in Baghdad's Shiite and Sunni neighborhoods with Iraqi forces. The troops who'll arrive between now and the completion of the buildup in June know there's a change in strategy. That's why they're going to Iraq. And the Iraqis know there's a change of strategy.

It's one thing to want to pull out of Iraq, come what may. It's one thing to oppose Gen. David Petraeus' surge strategy because you somehow know it won't work, because you're invested politically or intellectually in defeat. It's another thing to insist that nothing's changed since last fall and that President Bush is simply "staying the course."

If anyone is staying the course today it's Democrats like Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who continue to say Bush is "staying the course." It's so Campaign 2006.

Of course, people who won't acknowledge a new strategy are unlikely to admit it shows signs of working. But Pelosi, Reid and the gang might ponder some of the encouraging news coming out of Iraq already.

Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., a critic of the war's execution, returned from Iraq in late February with cause for "optimism." He said he believed the new plan would improve the situation there. Two weeks later, Arizona's Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano came back from Iraq and said the leaders and troops she met with are "cautiously optimistic that they're at least seeing improvement." After visiting, she was not ready to call for a U.S. withdrawal: "I think we're restoring stability."

NBC's Brian Williams was on the ground in Ramadi and had a similar take. Things were different this visit. The new strategy was having "an obvious and palpable effect" and "the war has changed."

They all better be careful or the Iraq war's "hear-no-good, speak-no-good, see-no-good" set will start calling them "neocons," whatever that now means.

What are the hints that "the war has changed"? Well, U.S. and Iraqi forces are taking on the Shiite militia—with Nouri al-Maliki's Shiite-dominated government's blessing. Petraeus recently told USA Today that coalition forces have detained 700 members of the Mahdi Army, the biggest Shite militia in Baghdad. Its leaders have left town. Muqtada al-Sadr hasn't been seen in weeks, and the Pentagon says this Shiite cleric-thug is in Iran.

Lt. Gen. Abboud Qanbar, the Iraqi in charge of the Baghdad security plan, reported that 265 civilians were killed and 781 injured since the security crackdown's mid-February start. That compares to 1,440 killed and 3,192 injured the month before. He also said sectarian displacement was also decreasing, with about 2,000 families returning to their homes.

"The achievements of the last 30 days cannot only be evaluated by numbers and statistics," he told the Los Angeles Times, "but must also take into account the confidence of ordinary Iraqis that a positive change is taking place regarding security and being felt by people."

The results are tangible. Markets and stores are reopening. Security tips are up.

Of course, it's early yet. The surge of U.S. troops won't be complete until late spring, and the enemy will react and have his bloody say. Of course, Qanbar is invested in the crackdown's success. But these and other signs of progress suggest this new "last chance" strategy has a chance of success. Good news, unless you're somehow invested in the new strategy's failure. That is, if you can even bring yourself to acknowledge there is a new strategy.

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