Baghdad residents in Abu Niwas Street park on the Tigris River. Violence in all of Iraq is the lowest since March 2004, but the improvements are fragile
Big Gains for Iraq Security, but Questions LingerObama's Troop Withdrawal Disaster
By STEPHEN FARRELL and RICHARD A. OPPEL Jr.
June 21, 2008
BAGHDAD — What’s going right? And can it last?
Violence in all of Iraq is the lowest since March 2004. The two largest cities, Baghdad and Basra, are calmer than they have been for years. The third largest, Mosul, is in the midst of a major security operation. On Thursday, Iraqi forces swept unopposed through the southern city of Amara, which has been controlled by Shiite militias. There is a sense that Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki’s government has more political traction than any of its predecessors.
Consider the latest caricatures of Mr. Maliki put up on posters by the followers of Moktada al-Sadr, the fiery cleric who commands deep loyalty among poor Shiites. They show the prime minister’s face split in two — half his own, half Saddam Hussein’s. The comparison is, of course, intended as a searing criticism. But only three months ago the same Sadr City pamphleteers were lampooning Mr. Maliki as half-man, half-parrot, merely echoing the words of his more powerful Shiite and American backers. It is a notable swing from mocking an opponent perceived to be weak to denouncing one feared to be strong.
For Hatem al-Bachary, a Basra businessman, the turnabout has been “a miracle,” the first tentative signs of a normal life.
“I don’t think the militias have disappeared, and maybe there are sleeper cells which will try to revive themselves again,” he said. “But the first time they try to come back they will have to show themselves, and the government, army and police are doing very well.”
While the increase in American troops and their support behind the scenes in the recent operations has helped tamp down the violence, there are signs that both the Iraqi security forces and the Iraqi government are making strides. There are simply more Iraqi troops for the government to deploy, partly because fewer are needed to fight the Sunni insurgents, who have defected to the Sunni Awakening movement. They are paid to keep the peace.
Mr. Maliki’s moves against Shiite militias have built some trust with wary Sunnis, offering the potential for political reconciliation. High oil prices are filling Iraqi government coffers. But even these successes contain the seeds of vulnerability. The government victories in Basra, Sadr City and Amara were essentially negotiated, so the militias are lying low but undefeated and seething with resentment. Mr. Maliki may be raising expectations among Sunnis that he cannot fulfill, and the Sunni Awakening forces in many cases are loyal to their American paymasters, not the Shiite government. Restive Iraqis want to see the government spend money to improve services. Attacks like the bombing that killed 63 people in Baghdad’s Huriya neighborhood on Tuesday showed that opponents can continue to inflict carnage.
Perhaps most worrisome, more than five years after the American invasion, which knocked Mr. Hussein from power but set off great chaos, Iraq still lacks the formal rules to divide the power and spoils of an oil-rich nation among ethnic, religious and tribal groups and unite them under one stable idea of Iraq. The improvements are fragile.
The changes are already affecting Iraq’s complicated relationship with America. In the presidential campaign, a debate is rising about whether the quiet means American soldiers can leave.
Iraqi Officials Gain Confidence
American military commanders are seeing a new confidence among Iraqi leaders. They said they believed that the success of the recent military operations had played a role in the Iraqi government’s firm rebuff of American negotiators over a new long-term security pact to govern the United States military presence after the end of this year.
“They are feeling very strong right now, after Basra, Mosul and Sadr City,” said one senior American official.
The most obvious but often overlooked reason for the recent military success has been an increase in the number of trained Iraqi troops.
The quality of the recruits and leadership has often been poor, even in recent months. In Baghdad’s Sadr City, one Iraqi company abandoned its position in April, forcing American and Iraqi commanders to fill the gap with hastily summoned reinforcements. In Basra, more than 1,000 recently qualified soldiers deserted rather than obey orders to fight against Mr. Sadr’s Mahdi Army. One senior Iraqi government official conceded that the deserters simply “felt that the other side was too strong.”
But sheer numbers have helped to overcome the shortcomings. After the embarrassing setback in Basra, Mr. Maliki was able to pull units from elsewhere to provide reinforcements and saturate the city with checkpoints and patrols, restoring a measure of order after years of domination by Islamist militias and oil-smuggling mafias.
American officials said 50,000 members of Iraqi security forces took part in the Basra campaign, 45,000 in Mosul, and 10,000 in Sadr City — troops that would not have been available to Mr. Maliki’s predecessors. The Iraqis had by far the largest numbers of troops, although American and other coalition troops provided crucial air power, reconnaissance, logistics, medical support and even expertise in psychological operations.
Despite their newfound confidence, some senior Iraqi officials close to Mr. Maliki said that without an American military safety net they are vulnerable to threats from outside and inside their borders.
The progress in Iraq is irrefutable. But so is the danger that it could all be undone by a naive and disastrous policy change on the part of the United States. Even the New York Times gets that basic truth. However, on Barack Obama's web site, he still touts his desire to bring all U.S. combat troops home within 16 months. And he brags about a plan he introduced in the U.S. Senate in January 2007 that if passed, would have achieved this withdrawal by March of this year.
Here's a short video (two minutes, twenty eight seconds) that intersperses the testimony of General Petraeus on the danger of premature withdrawal and compares it to the statements of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton demanding immediate withdrawal.
The consequences of Obama's plan would have meant disaster and death for innocent Iraqis and humiliation for the United States and an emboldened Al Queda revived and ready to take the United States in new areas of conflict.
Instead, under the leadership of President Bush and General Petraeus the opposite has happened. Every American should consider how invested in defeat the Democrats have consistently been and how they have attempted to derail success in Iraq as a political tool to acquire power.
The question voters need to ask is: Would they rather vote for a candidate who will cut and run at the first sign of trouble in the most dangerous and difficult tasks? Is that what a leader would do? And would they consider a candidate who deliberately encourages defeat of his own country to be worthy of their vote? Your chance to hold Democrats at every level who pandered for defeat accountable comes in 134 days.
What will you do?