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Saturday, Sept. 15, 2007

U.S. marking time in Iraq


LONDON — The thing to remember about U.S. Gen. David Petraeus' report to Congress on the progress made by the American military "surge" in Iraq is that he is basically reporting on his own performance. Nothing in a review of his past career suggests that he is prone to downplay his own achievements, and since he took command of U.S. forces in Iraq in February, his briefings have invariably been upbeat. The likelihood that he was going to say that now is the time to give up and go home from Iraq was always zero.

At Petraeus' level of responsibility there is no such thing as a nonpolitical general. He was chosen by and reports to a White House whose occupant has vowed that there will be no withdrawal from Iraq while he is in office. The two American generals who shared the command responsibility in Iraq when President George W. Bush first proposed the "surge" strategy late last year were fired when they did not back it. Of course Petraeus supports it.

So why are his opinions being treated with such reverence in political Washington, as if he were an independent auditor called in to assess the situation? Because the deeper truth is that none of the major players is really willing to pull the plug on the Iraq fiasco until after next year's election. Meanwhile, everybody is just marking time and Petraeus is their excuse for continuing to do so.

Republicans are lumbered with a president and vice president who will not be running in the next election and who are determined to prove they were right to invade Iraq no matter what the political cost to their own party. The party elders believe that popular anger at the war will lose them the White House in November 2008, but they do not believe that an open rebellion against Bush's Iraq policy would achieve anything except to split the party.

The Democrats scent victory in 2008, but are hypersensitive about accusations that they are betraying the troops, so they will not try to use their congressional majorities to cut off funding for the war. They also calculate, quite rightly, that it is the quagmire in Iraq that makes their victory in 2008 so likely so why deprive themselves of the best stick to beat the Republicans with by shutting the war down prematurely?

This explains the relatively easy ride that Petraeus and his civilian counterpart, U.S. Ambassador to Baghdad Ryan Crocker, have had in Washington. All Petraeus had to do was promise that the number of American troops in Iraq would be back down to last November's level by November 2008, which was hardly a significant concession since the U.S. Army could not sustain the "surge" past next summer anyway.

In effect, President Bush's "surge" strategy has bought him two whole years with the U.S. troop level in Iraq at or above 130,000, but has it actually achieved anything else? Despite Petraeus' obligatory optimism, the answer is probably no. There is no sign that the weak and divided Iraqi government will become cohesive and effective, or that the Iraqi army will become capable of independent operations and grow into a truly national force.

True, the number of bodies being found in Baghdad every morning is down quite a bit, but that is mostly because the ethnic cleansing is largely complete. The Shiites who used to live in Sunni-majority areas of the capital and the Sunnis who lived in Shiite-majority areas have almost all fled or been killed, together with the Christians and other minorities, so there are fewer easy targets available.

The much-touted pacification of Anbar province, once the heartland of the Sunni insurgency, is due to a de facto alliance between the U.S. Army and traditional tribal leaders whose authority was being usurped by the "al-Qaida in Mesopotamia" fanatics. But that doesn't mean that the sheiks are reconciled to the rule of a Shiite-majority government in Baghdad, let alone to the long-term presence of American troops in their province. They are just dealing with the most urgent enemy first.

The British are leaving southern Iraq to the rule of the militias. Open confrontation between the Kurds and the government in Baghdad over the territory around Kirkuk and Mosul grows ever harder to avoid, but that confrontation would break the one alliance that provides a modicum of political stability at the center. The Parliament's only achievement has been to resist the U.S.-backed oil bill that would open two-thirds of the nation's oil reserves to exploitation by foreign oil companies: well done, but hardly enough.

One Iraqi in seven has been forced out of his or her home and become a refugee (2 million refugees abroad, and 2 million displaced people within Iraq). U.S. military dead will reach the 4,000 mark by December, and probably 5,000 by next year's election. Iraq is not fixed. It is not even on the mend.

The current American troop level, and maybe even the pre-surge level, can freeze the situation for a time, though at a significant cost in lives for both Iraqis and Americans, but it creates only a very temporary stability. Everybody is just waiting for Bush to leave office and the real American withdrawal to begin.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.


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