"As for the enemies of freedom, those who are potential adversaries, they will be reminded that peace is the highest aspiration of the American people. We will negotiate for it, sacrifice for it; we will not surrender for it, now or ever." - Reagan, January 20, 1981

"In Vietnam, we tried and failed in a just cause. No More Vietnams can mean we will not try again. It should mean we will not fail again." - from No More Vietnams by Richard Nixon

Friday, September 26, 2008

Sept. 24, 2008 - Iraq parliament paves way for provincial elections


Iraq parliament paves way for provincial elections
By QASSIM ABDUL-ZAHRA – 2 days ago

BAGHDAD (AP) — Under intense U.S. pressure, Iraq's parliament approved a law Wednesday paving the way for the first provincial elections in four years following months of deadlock that American commanders warned could jeopardize the dramatic decline in violence.

The breakthrough came after lawmakers decided to postpone a decision on how to resolve a power-sharing dispute over the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. The Kirkuk controversy has stoked ethnic tensions in northern Iraq and stalled approval of the election bill.

U.S. officials hope the election, which must be held by Jan. 31 according to the new legislation, will give greater representation to minority Sunni Arabs. Many Sunnis and some Shiites boycotted the last provincial election, in January 2005, enabling Shiite religious parties and the Kurds to win a disproportionate share of the seats.

Empowering Sunnis through a new election may reduce support for the waning insurgency — though not among extremist groups.

In the latest bloodshed, suspected al-Qaida in Iraq militants ambushed and killed at least 22 Iraqi police commandos and U.S.-allied Sunni fighters in a village northeast of Baghdad on Wednesday. And in an audio message posted on militant Web sites, the purported leader of the al-Qaida front group the Islamic State in Iraq warned pro-government Sunnis that Shiites and U.S. forces will one day turn on them.

But the vote could also shift the balance of power among Shiite factions. Followers of anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr are hoping to make large gains in southern provinces, where many of the councils are dominated by rival Shiite parties in the ruling government coalition.

The 275-member Iraqi parliament had been heavily criticized for its inability to pass the law needed to establish the rules and guidelines for the vote. The election had been due as early as Oct. 1, then the date was pushed to the end of December.

U.S. officials have complained privately that Iraqi politicians have failed to take advantage of the sharp drop in violence — down 80 percent since last year, according to the U.S. military — to forge lasting power-sharing agreements.

The head of Iraq's electoral commission said the delay will make it difficult to meet the Jan. 31 deadline but that preparations were already under way.

"I think it will be very difficult to hold the elections this year, but we will try our best to ensure the elections occur before the end of January 2009," Faraj al-Haidari said.

President Bush congratulated the Iraqi parliament for passing the law and called the Sunni speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhadani and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, to praise their leadership, his office said.

"Nothing is more central to a functioning democracy than free and fair elections," Bush said in a statement. "Today's action demonstrates the ability of Iraq's leaders to work together for the good of the Iraqi people and represents further progress on political reconciliation."

U.N. envoy Staffan di Mistura, who has shuttled relentlessly between the political blocs to pressure them to approve the law, said preparations for the vote would begin immediately.

"Today is an important day for Iraq and democracy as the parliament found a compromise over election law," he said. "This will help Iraq and Iraqis to express their opinions by voting for their candidates in the provinces."

The legislation had been bogged down in a complex dispute among Arabs, Turkomen and Kurds over Kirkuk, which Kurds seek to incorporate into their semiautonomous region.

The measure still needs to be approved by the three-member presidential panel led by President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd who vetoed an election bill passed in February after Kurdish lawmakers walked out of parliament.

But Kurdish legislators agreed to the latest proposal, making its adoption more likely. All sides accepted a U.N. compromise to put off the vote in Tamim province, which includes Kirkuk.

Instead, parliament will form a committee to review property disputes and power-sharing concerns and come up with separate legislation for elections there by March 31.

Kurdish legislator Khalid Shewani said the tipping point was an assurance that the committee would work according to the Iraqi constitution.

"Every side had fears but these fears have disappeared after the inclusion of legal guarantees," he said. "We thank God that we reached this agreement."

The new law also banned political parties from using religious authorities, mosques and government institutions as part of campaigning.

Another item specified that 25 percent of the council members must be women — the same quota constitutionally mandated for parliamentary elections, which were last held in December 2005 and drew more Sunni participation. But the thorny issue of how to ensure minorities such as Christians and Yazidis are fairly represented was to be addressed separately by the U.N. envoy.

Voters will choose councils in 14 provinces, which wield considerable power over local security forces and resources, including oil. Excluded from the legislation were the three provinces that make up the semiautonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq since they are governed by the Kurdish parliament, as well as Tamim province, which includes Kirkuk.

Associated Press writers Sinan Salaheddin and Sameer N. Yacoub contributed to this report.

Washington Times - EXCLUSIVE: McCain, Iraq and the Surge

Thursday, August 21, 2008
McCain turns Bush on Iraq war surge
Joseph Curl (Contact)

Sen. John McCain, who watched from a prison camp as America failed to deploy the overwhelming force necessary to win the Vietnam War, seized the moment after Republicans lost Congress in 2006 to push President Bush not to make the same mistake.

Mr. McCain sent a private letter to Mr. Bush on Dec. 12, 2006, that challenged the president to show the "will" to win the Iraq war by deploying 20,000 troops into Baghdad and the Sunni Triangle to beat back a growing insurgency.

The letter was the climax of a 3 1/2-year effort to persuade the president to send more troops to Iraq. The former Navy pilot, who had his arms repeatedly broken during nearly six years of captivity, couched his argument in the terms born of the Vietnam War.

"The question is one of will more than capacity," wrote the senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee. "If we are not willing to provide the troops necessary for victory, however, victory itself will be impossible."

Mr. McCain, whose letter is made public here for the first time, added that "surging five additional brigades into Baghdad by March" was the answer.

Mr. Bush, who had resisted Mr. McCain's call for a troop surge for years, now praises him for persisting in his argument that expanding the war in Iraq was the way to win it.

"John recognized early on that more troops would be needed in order to achieve the security necessary for the Iraqis to make the political progress we're seeing now," the president told The Washington Times this week.

"He supported that action even though many said it would hurt his campaign [for president]. He didn't care about popularity; he cared about success for our troops and our country. And now that the surge has worked, it proves that John's judgment was correct."

Mr. McCain's push to increase troops in Iraq began five years ago this month, just after his first visit to Baghdad and three months after Mr. Bush had proclaimed the end of major combat before a banner reading "Mission Accomplished."

"We need a lot more military," the senator said during a stop in Pakistan on his way home. "We need to tell the American people, and I think they'll support it."

A week later in Washington, he delivered the same message to any senior official who would listen: Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. In November, Mr. McCain warned about the "lessons" of his own war.

"We lost in Vietnam because we lost the will to fight, because we did not understand the nature of the war we were fighting, and because we limited the tools at our disposal."

For much of his 3 1/2-year advocacy for the surge - an attempt to persuade the president to adopt a strategy that his commanders said was unnecessary, that Democrats in Congress angrily opposed and that Mr. McCain's Republican colleagues bitterly resented - the former Navy pilot was an army of one.

But after Republicans lost control of Congress in November 2006, Mr. McCain gained leverage in his argument with a president who was soon to face an empowered majority of Democrats and a Republican panicked by the idea that the election was a mandate on Iraq.

Soon the architects of the failing strategy in Iraq - the generals and their civilian superiors - would be banished, and a dissenting general who had sought an increase in troops and a new counterinsurgency strategy would take charge of the war in Iraq.

The president, with no acknowledgement then of Mr. McCain's arguments, would adopt the senator's plan. Democrats who predicted the failure of what they mockingly called "the McCain surge" would fall silent when the 20,000-troop increase led to a dramatic reduction of violence, falling to a low of just 11 troops killed in July.

"They don't call it that anymore," Sen. Lindsey Graham said, smiling in triumph.

The South Carolina Republican, an early convert to the McCain cause who observed much of the senator's backdoor efforts, is unabashed in his praise for his longtime friend, blinking back a tear as he recalls trips he took to Iraq with his colleague.

"Without John McCain, there would never have been the surge," he said emphatically.

Mr. McCain declined to be interviewed for this account, privately telling an aide, "I won't take credit for the surge." Other top advisers said he won't talk about private conversations with the president and the military leaders serving under him. The man who refused to leave his Vietnam prison camp ahead of those captured before him is said to be determined not to take credit for success that belongs to soldiers.

Mr. McCain's views contrast sharply with those of his Democratic rival in the November election. Sen. Barack Obama, a freshman senator from Illinois, joined his party's elders to oppose the surge, even after military leaders agreed that it was necessary, and now only grudgingly acknowledges the success of the surge.

Mr. McCain's plea for change in Iraq, and how he finally accomplished it, is detailed here through scores of documents and interviews conducted by The Times during a six-month investigation.

'Mission Accomplished'

Just six weeks after the start of the war, Mr. Bush flew in a Lockheed S-3 Viking fighter-bomber to a smooth landing on the flight deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln as the aircraft carrier bobbed in the Pacific in May 2003. Its crew had just returned from combat operations in the Persian Gulf.

Mr. Bush was greeted by the crew with wild enthusiasm, posing for photographs in his flight suit with pilots and ship crewmen beneath a huge banner boasting "Mission Accomplished." The White House would later say the banner was meant in salute only to the crew of the Abraham Lincoln.

"In the battle of Iraq," the president said, "the United States and our allies have prevailed." But he warned there was still "difficult work to do in Iraq. We are bringing order to parts of that country that remain dangerous."

In the following weeks, hawks in the Senate who had pushed for war in Iraq began to feel vindicated. Their prime spokesman - a man literally born into the military and the progeny of two Navy heroes - Mr. McCain had declared a week after the war began March 19, 2003, "there's no doubt in my mind that we will prevail and there's no doubt in my mind, once these people are gone, that we will be welcomed as liberators."

Three weeks after the president's speech, Mr. McCain took to the chamber's floor to proclaim an American triumph of arms. "We won a massive victory in a few weeks, and we did so with very limited loss of American and allied lives," he declared.

The senator felt the same way a month later, when Fox News' Neil Cavuto stated flatly that "many argue the conflict isn't over."

"Well, then," replied the senator, "why was there a banner that said 'Mission Accomplished' on the aircraft carrier? The major conflict is over."

But this view changed after he went to Iraq in August 2003 and met a blunt-spoken British commander in Basra, where a disintegrating situation was turning to chaos.

The British colonel

Unlike most of his Senate colleagues, Mr. McCain did not take a vacation or junket during the lengthy summer recess in 2003. Instead, along with Mr. Graham, he went with a congressional delegation to Iraq. With his trademark curiosity and adherence to Ronald Reagan's famous caution to "trust but verify," the senator wanted to see for himself the victory that America had won so quickly.

Once on the ground, the senators were taken into Basra, a Shi'ite city in southeastern Iraq controlled by British troops. "I never will forget it," Mr. Graham recalled. "He gets up and starts speaking, looks at Senator McCain and says, 'You know, I'm a British citizen, I don't pay taxes in America and I will never vote for you and I will probably never see you again, but here's what I think: We don't have it right - we don't have enough people, I don't have the right kind of people. If we do not get ahead of this, it is going to be a very big problem.'"

"That British colonel opened our eyes beyond anything else. You can be briefed in Washington, they can show you charts, but when you get on the ground and actually talk to the people it's a completely different story," Mr. Graham said.

The two senators quickly concluded that conditions inside Iraq were clearly worse than American commanders were reporting to the White House. While Mr. McCain and the others were in Iraq, 17 people, including the top U.N. envoy who was a key figure in the political transformation of Iraq, were slain in an attack on an installation of the United Nations. The attack occurred as the senators were meeting with U.S. Ambassador L. Paul Bremer and Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, then the commander of U.S. troops.

Mr. McCain, characteristically blunt, looked the ambassador and the general "right in the eye," Mr. Graham recalled, "and said, 'You're going to have to start shooting some of these looters.' It was his belief that the looting and the other signs of the growing insurgency had to be dealt with and he asked point-blank, 'Do you have enough troops?' Everybody said 'Yes.'"

An about-face

Mr. McCain's opinion changed on that first trip. The campaign to oust Saddam Hussein and neutralize Iraq's military had been won, but the peace was at risk because of an insurgency that, fueled in part by Iran and Syria, had quickly materialized. The insurgents were gaining.

"I think there's a danger that unless we do what's necessary quickly, that we could find ourselves in an extremely - and I emphasize extremely - difficult situation," he said Aug. 29 in an interview on National Public Radio. "We need more troops."

The senator said on "Meet the Press" that another division of troops - 20,000 soldiers - was needed to secure Iraq, and repeated the call for two months.

His rhetoric crystallized in November 2003 in a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. With inside-the-Beltway punditocracy beginning to call Iraq a "quagmire" - the term that came to define the Vietnam War - the senator repeatedly insisted that "Iraq is no Vietnam."

But he again called for more troops and a strengthened will to win the war. "The simple truth is that we do not have sufficient forces in Iraq to meet our military objectives," he said. "Simply put, there does not appear to be a strategy behind our current force levels in Iraq, other than to preserve the illusion that we have sufficient forces in place to meet our objectives."

As evidence, he cited Gen. Sanchez's acknowledgement from the ground in Iraq that his forces could not handle new battles. "If a militia or an internal conflict of some nature were to erupt," the senator quoted the general, "that would be a challenge out there that I do not have sufficient forces for."

In this speech, he said another division should be deployed to Baghdad and the Sunni Triangle, which stretches from Baghdad west to Ramadi and north to Tikrit. In what would become a frequent refrain, he lashed Mr. Rumsfeld, who just three days earlier had repeated his emphatic assertion that no more troops were needed.

"I hope that Secretary Rumsfeld would recognize that - the realities on the ground. And the realities on the ground are that things are not getting better. ... However you do it, I think we need more people there."

The day after that, the defense secretary called to invite Mr. McCain to breakfast. The meeting the next morning was chilly; Mr. Rumsfeld opened by saying: "I read your speech." (Mr. McCain later joked that "that must have been an enjoyable experience for him.")

The defense secretary, who had made his own visit to Iraq in September, was perplexed by Mr. McCain's assessment of the conditions on the ground, said a senior McCain adviser who asked not to be named because the meeting was private. But the senator spelled out what he thought was needed.

"He told Secretary Rumsfeld there was danger that the peace was being lost and asked that they ramp up both the troop strength and the civilian assistance programs," the senior adviser said.

The senator "made a very passionate case that we need to look at adding more troops," said Mr. Graham, who talked with Mr. McCain soon after the meeting with the defense secretary concluded.

"In that first visit [to Iraq] in August, it was very subtle as to what was going on, and it wasn't obvious to everybody that the country was going into chaos, but John could see that the dynamics were all wrong," Mr. Graham said.

As the senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which has oversight of military operations and considerable authority in shaping the Defense Department's budget, Mr. McCain offered blunt advice.

"McCain believed the Pentagon was spending too much time on search and destroy missions that were ineffective, when in fact the troops needed to focus on the growing threats to civilians targeted by the insurgency, creating a chaos that could destabilize the entire country," the McCain adviser said.

The secretary was not persuaded.

"Rumsfeld responded by assuring Senator McCain that the commanders had told him they had all the assets they needed on the ground," the adviser said.

An aide to the secretary said Mr. McCain's account is incorrect.

"In November 2003, Secretary Rumsfeld and Senator McCain had one of a number of conversations that ended with the two in agreement on the need to win in Iraq," Keith Urbahn said. "Senator McCain may prefer to characterize their meeting as a Showdown at the OK Corral, but that's not straight talk. It's a fairy tale."

Mr. Rumsfeld wrote a two-sentence summary shortly after his meeting, according to his office. "I had breakfast with Senator McCain. He said, 'The answer may not be more troops in Iraq, but the answer is not the status quo.' I agree with him."

Mr. McCain nevertheless left the breakfast table convinced that the Pentagon was out of touch with reality, a conclusion that eventually would drive him to become one of Mr. Rumsfeld's harshest critics. He made several additional private attempts to persuade the Pentagon and the White House to make changes in both strategy and tactics, and when those efforts failed, he decided to use his influence as a senator and a war hero to push the Pentagon to send more troops.

The Bully-pulpit years

The next three years would set David against Goliath, the 5-foot-7-inch, 165-pound senator from Arizona against the heavyweights in the White House and the Pentagon, the very men and women who had shaped the strategy that was failing. He got little help from his Senate colleagues.

"Republicans embraced the idea, 'Well, this violence is basically manufactured by the media; it's not as bad as it looks,'" Mr. Graham recalled. "Democrats were so over the top - 'This is hopeless and we can't win' - so John's voice, which was consistent, was drowned in the raucous clamor of partisan politics."

In November 2003, Mr. McCain took his frustrations public. Unless the United States immediately dispatched at least 15,000 additional troops to Iraq, he said, the United States risked "the most serious American defeat on the global stage since Vietnam."

He continued even in the midst of the 2004 presidential election campaign. Risking alienating the president, whom he joined on the campaign trail, Mr. McCain rebuked Mr. Rumsfeld for refusing to challenge his military commanders.

"It's not up to the commanders on the ground. It's up to the leadership of the country to make these decisions," Mr. McCain said. "That's why we elect them and have civilian supremacy. We're now facing a terrible insurgency."

Despite his increasingly sharp criticism of the conduct of the war, he met frequently with Mr. Bush, sometimes in the Oval Office and occasionally aboard Air Force One, en route to campaign stops together. Their relationship had grown cordial, the bitter battle of the 2000 Republican primary battle forgotten and forgiven.

Then, just two weeks before the November presidential election, Mr. McCain publicly disputed Mr. Bush's assertion that sufficient troops were on the ground in Iraq. "I think that we need more troops in Iraq," he said. "I've thought that for a long time, election or no election."

By the end of the year, Mr. McCain was contemptuous of Mr. Rumsfeld, declaring that he had "no confidence" in the Pentagon chief. "I have strenuously argued for larger troop numbers in Iraq, including the right kind of troops - linguists, special forces, civil affairs and so forth," he said. He kept up the pressure as the war stretched into the new year. "We've got stay and expand."

Path to election defeat

Conditions in Iraq continued to spiral downward. Casualties increased. The players on the yellow sofa in the Oval Office - Vice President Dick Cheney, Miss Rice, Mr. Rumsfeld, members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff - dug in their heels. No one was ready to depart from the strategy they designed, and each thought that a few tweaks of tactics would lead to triumph. Democrats, meanwhile, continued to relentlessly attack Republicans for "staying the course of failure."

By November 2005, Mr. McCain's frustration became bitter resignation. "It will take time, probably years, and mean more American casualties to win in Iraq," he said.

The White House would soon raise expectations of withdrawing troops; Mr. Bush, with midterm congressional elections coming in November, himself asserted in early 2006 that the United States could soon begin to bring some troops home, provided Iraqis began to take responsibility for saving themselves.

The declarations further exasperated Mr. McCain, who was reduced to repeating himself. "You know, I've always said that we needed more troops over there. I have said that for years," he said in 2006.

Across the partisan aisle, a new power center was emerging in the Democratic Party. Mr. Obama, a fit young freshman senator with a golden tongue, was putting together an upstart presidential campaign built on grass-roots dissatisfaction with the Iraq war. With Mr. McCain moving to the front of the Republican field for 2008, the man from Illinois sought to draw differences between them, emphasizing his oft-stated opposition to the war, and in particular his belief that sending more troops to Iraq would accelerate the rush to failure.

"Given the deteriorating situation, it is clear at this point that we cannot, through putting in more troops or maintaining the presence that we have, expect that somehow the situation is going to improve, and we have to do something significant to break the pattern that we've been in right now," Mr. Obama told audiences as the midterms approached.

The president continued to defer to his commanders on the ground, including Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the man in charge in Iraq. "General Casey will make the decision as to how many troops we have there," the president said. "I've told him this. I said, 'You decide, general.'"

On the eve of the 2006 elections that would rout Republicans everywhere, Mr. Bush pledged to stand by the deeply unpopular Mr. Rumsfeld. He could stay as defense secretary for the length of his term as president, Mr. Bush declared.

Then the voters spoke, handing Mr. Bush the most damaging loss of his presidency and opening his eyes to change.

'A new idea'

The Republican losses would lead inexorably to the surge. Mr. Rumsfeld resigned, and key men in uniform, like Gen. Casey, who for years had assured the administration he had enough troops at hand, were pushed aside.

"The irony of ironies, in my opinion, is that if the Republicans had not lost in 2006, the House and the Senate," Mr. Graham said. "I doubt Secretary Rumsfeld would have ever been replaced, and when he left it gave an opening to a new idea."

As the long run-up to the 2008 presidential campaign approached, Mr. McCain redoubled his support for the surge. This time, he would have the president's undivided attention after the midterm defeat that Mr. Bush himself called "a thumpin'."

Mr. McCain planned his fourth trip to Iraq in December 2006, and spent the early part of the month persuading Mr. Bush to accept the necessity of sending more troops. He met the president at the White House on Dec. 6, the day that the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, a distinguished panel of politicians and diplomats led by James A. Baker III, secretary of state during the administration of Mr. Bush's father, and Lee H. Hamilton, the widely respected former Democratic congressman from Indiana, delivered a report urging Mr. Bush to begin withdrawing U.S. combat forces from Iraq by the beginning of 2008. The alternative was "a slide into chaos."

Republicans were stunned. Many panicked. Sen. John W. Warner of Virginia, who had been an early and strong supporter of the war effort, joined Democratic critics to explore the idea of mandating a withdrawal from Iraq.

"They thought Iraq was the death blow to the Republican Party," Mr. Graham recalled. "So you had a group of different Republicans coming up with different plans that had the same result. We would begin to end combat operations and pull out."

Mr. McCain saw retreat as defeat. He turned to two of his closest friends, Mr. Graham and Sen. Joe Lieberman, to devise a strategy to push aside Pentagon critics of the surge, to convince the president that the surge was the right strategy and finally to thwart efforts to force a congressional vote on a troop withdrawal, which Democrats might win.

"I think John's finest moment, and in many ways mine and Senator Lieberman's, was to stop the stampede of Republicans who wanted to find ways out of Iraq," Mr. Graham said.

Mr. McCain, leading in the early Republican presidential polls for the 2008 nomination, used his celebrity in front of the camera to make a case for the new strategy and to buck up demoralized Republicans. Blocking a Senate vote on withdrawal was crucial.

The conservative American Enterprise Institute sent a draft report to Mr. McCain from its own panel, dubbed the Iraq Planning Group. Unlike the Baker-Hamilton group, the AEI plan mirrored Mr. McCain's, calling for more troops in Iraq.

Mr. Graham assumed dual roles. He acted first as a floor whip in the Senate, collecting and coddling the 41 votes needed to prevent a vote to withdraw troops on a specific timetable.

Further behind the scenes, he worked with Gen. David H. Petraeus, who was poised to take over management of the Iraq war in 2007. The two discussed a specific counterinsurgency plan that would focus on restoring security in the streets of Iraq's most dangerous cities.

Gen. Petraeus was a counterinsurgency expert and a strong advocate of increasing troop levels.

"There were a lot of late-night phone calls where General Petraeus and I talked," Mr. Graham recalled. "And then I'd be relaying everything to John, who was on the campaign trail." Armed with the AEI panel's conclusions and Gen. Petraeus' thinking on how to implement a surge, Mr. McCain set out to change the president's mind.

Letter to the president

He made his case in a blunt three-page letter to Mr. Bush. "While there's no doubt that a number of changes in policy are necessary, I believe that none will be successful without an increase in the number of U.S. forces there," Mr. McCain wrote.

He detailed a plan distilled from Gen. Petraeus' thinking for a surge of 20,000 fresh troops. "Only the presence of additional coalition forces will give the Iraqi government the opportunity to restore its authority and install the government," he wrote. "Surging five additional brigades into Baghdad by March, tasking them with traditional counterinsurgency activity, including protection of the population and intensive reconstruction, would give the coalition, in concert with Iraqi security forces, a real chance to succeed in its mission. The surge shouldn't be limited by an artificial timeline."

The document was notable not only for its detailed analysis, but for its pep talk to Mr. Bush, which including a whiff of a lecture.

The hero of an unpopular war ultimately lost in Vietnam, Mr. McCain argued that the primary obstacle to winning in Iraq was the government's inability to make a tough decision, commit more troops and stick with the plan.

"The question is one of will more than capacity," he wrote Mr. Bush. "I believe success in Iraq is still possible, and that, by finally bringing security to Baghdad, and by reducing the violence plaguing other areas, we can give Iraqis the best possible opportunity to construct a stable and self-governing state. Our national security compels us to try, and to try immediately."

Back to Iraq, then decision

Mr. McCain set off at once for Baghdad again, to hear firsthand from commanders on the ground. On this, his fourth trip to Iraq, conditions had again clearly grown worse.

When he returned to Washington, he met with Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to spell out "where he thought things needed to go," the top McCain adviser said.

Several days later, on Dec. 18, Robert M. Gates - who had been president of Texas A&M University and a member of the Iraq Study Group that recommended withdrawal from Iraq - succeeded Mr. Rumsfeld as defense secretary. The next day, Mr. Gates, too, slipped off to Iraq to see the war for himself. "I do expect to give a report to the president on what I've learned and my perceptions," he said on his last day in Baghdad.

The secretary delivered his findings at the president's Prairie Chapel Ranch shortly after Christmas, joining the generals and senior Bush aides. But the president gave a hint of a change in his thinking while Mr. Gates was still in Baghdad.

At a year-end press conference, the president dispensed with his usual pledge to heed ground commanders in Iraq, saying he would listen but not necessarily defer to the generals. The same day, Gen. John Abizaid, a Rumsfeld favorite and one of the holdouts against changing strategy in Iraq, retired as commander of U.S. Central Command.

Gen. Casey, another of the old guard and the commander in Iraq, would exile himself from the core group just before New Year's Day. Expressing doubt about the wisdom of a surge, he told the New York Times on Dec. 28 that "It's always been my view that a heavy and sustained American military presence was not going to solve the problems in Iraq."

The Bush administration, from the president down, was now poised to move to the new strategy. When the president returned from Texas to Washington in early 2007, a letter from Mr. Lieberman and Mr. Graham awaited him.

"Now is the time for bold and decisive leadership to chart a new course forward in Iraq," the senators wrote in their Jan. 8, letter, echoing the calls of Mr. McCain. "Some of the necessary changes, including new leadership in both the civilian and military leadership, have already been made. We also strongly encourage you to send additional American troops to Iraq to improve the security situation on the ground. For far too long we have not had enough troops in Iraq to provide security. It is time to correct this mistake."

Two days later, on Jan. 10, the commander in chief addressed the nation in prime time to announce he would do just that.

"It is clear that we need to change our strategy in Iraq," a grim Mr. Bush said. "Our past efforts to secure Baghdad failed for two principal reasons: There were not enough Iraqi and American troops to secure neighborhoods that had been cleared of terrorists and insurgents. And there were too many restrictions on the troops we did have."

Even though Mr. McCain and his colleagues had prevailed, the trio of senators who had pushed for the surge restrained the natural urge to celebrate. "It was also the day you realized you just helped to expand this war," Mr. Graham said. "That wasn't lost on John, me or Joe Lieberman."

The 41st vote

The next nine months would be dark and solemn days for Mr. McCain. With his reputation on the line, his bid for the presidency was tied tightly to the success of the strategy he had persuaded Mr. Bush to embrace.

Throughout the winter and spring of 2007, the senator, along with the help of a few colleagues and Mr. Lieberman, would struggle to keep Democrats in Congress from cutting troops or funds for Iraq.

Partisan bickering broke out almost immediately. The last of the surge troops Mr. Bush ordered would not arrive in Iraq until June, but less than a week after the president's announcement on Jan. 10, the top Senate Democrats, joined by a leading dissident Republican, introduced a resolution opposing the surge.

The resolution fell just a few votes short of getting to the floor for debate.

Over the following months, the Republicans, along with one or two straying Democrats and always Mr. Lieberman, withstood more than a dozen attempts to reduce funding for the war in Iraq or to set a timetable for troop withdrawal.

A steady drumbeat of Democratic voices called the surge a failure even before all the fresh troops were in place. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid exploited a succession of car bombings in Iraq that killed more than 200 Iraqis in April 2007 to declare the surge a failure.

"I believe ... that this war is lost, and this surge is not accomplishing anything," he said.

Mr. McCain, campaigning in Mr. Reid's home state of Nevada, hotly disputed the Senate leader. "It seems to me Senator Reid has lost all sense of priority."

But on vote after vote the McCain alliance held, preventing a congressional mandate for withdrawal. Mr. Lieberman was the key to the achievement. The senator from Connecticut, an early and consistent supporter of the war, became an outcast in his own party, taking relentless criticism from the powerful antiwar flank, much of it coming from MoveOn.org.

In the 2006 Democratic primaries, Mr. Lieberman even lost his party's nomination. Undeterred, he changed his party affiliation to independent and won decisively in the general election, sealing the victory that separated him from the Democratic powers. In 2007, though continuing as a member of the Democratic caucus in the Senate, he became Mr. McCain's 41st vote, a reliable ally of the 40 other senators whom Mr. McCain and Mr. Graham had assembled to prevent votes on withdrawal.

"We couldn't have done it without Joe," Mr. Graham said. "He replaced a [lost] Republican vote. He gave us the vote that we needed on many occasions to avoid pulling the plug on Iraq."

The dark days

But as Mr. McCain was winning the battle to preserve prospects for victory in Iraq, the wheels of his "Straight Talk Express" campaign bus came hurtling off.

His campaign had become badly bloated and was bleeding money. His standing was plummeting in the polls as violence spiked in Iraq and public faith in the wisdom of the surge declined. The senator slashed his staff and reporters abandoned the candidate, the story moving on to the lively presidential campaigns of former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

His organization nearly broke, Mr. McCain began traveling on scheduled commercial flights, often squeezing into a seat in economy, instead of the comfortable chartered private jets that are the mark of successful campaigns. Sometimes aides drove him through the night to campaign events. "He went through the airport carrying his own bags," Mr. Graham recalled. "We were fifth in a four-person race."

Mr. McCain nevertheless kept a stiff upper lip, joking in New Hampshire that "in the words of Chairman Mao, it's always darkest before it's totally black."

With Americans about to embark on a long weekend of backyard barbecues, cold beer and fireworks to celebrate the Fourth of July of 2007, several candidates declared a timeout. Not Mr. McCain. He set off for Iraq, again.

A renewed faith

He accepted an invitation from Gen. Petraeus to spend America's birthday with the troops and to attend a re-enlistment ceremony. Nearly 600 men and women packed themselves into the Al Faw Palace, once used as a duck-hunting retreat by Saddam Hussein.

The ceremony at the palace, rechristened by the Americans as Camp Victory, included the naturalization of 166 soldiers as American citizens. Gen. Petraeus administered the oath of enlistment. When the senator stepped up to speak, he could see troops hanging off balconies and crowding staircases to get a glimpse of a man they credited for sending them reinforcements.

Two pairs of empty boots stood upright in a chair near the senator, a melancholy reminder of two soldiers killed before they could take their scheduled oaths as Americans.

"I know it's not possible for even the most grateful nation to compensate you in kind for the measure of devotion that you have with great personal sacrifice given our country," Mr. McCain told the dogface soldiers. "We have incurred a debt to you that we can never repay in full. We can offer you only the small tribute of our humility.

"As you know, the war in which you have fought has divided the American people. But it has divided no Americans in their admiration for you. We all honor you.

"I have lived a long, eventful and blessed life," he said. "I have had the good fortune of knowing personally a great many brave and selfless patriots who sacrificed and shed blood to defend their country. But I've known none braver nor better than you. You are my inspiration, and your country's."

Mr. McCain arrived in Baghdad weary and discouraged. He left Iraq energized and eager to continue his own struggle, which he knew paled in comparison with those of the men and women he had just met - and he met every one, staying for hours.

"It was just John and myself in the plane, with a few staff folks," Mr. Graham recalled of the flight home. "I never will forget, as we took off he looked over at me and said, 'If these kids can do this, we can get our campaign back going.' It rededicated him to winning the primary."

A campaign shift

Mr. McCain arrived home and hit the ground running. He trimmed fat out of his campaign bureaucracy and would run it on a shoestring budget of $1 million a month. "This campaign is going to be won on the ground, vote by vote," he wrote to his supporters in a fundraising e-mail appeal, "and I'm convinced that if every voter learns of my unparalleled experience, we will win." He made his resolve to win in Iraq the centerpiece of his campaign, embarking on what staffers dubbed "The No Surrender Tour."

The tour started in Veterans of Foreign Wars huts and American Legion posts, aimed first at the millions of veterans across the nation. He took several men who had shared prison cells with him, along with veterans of the fighting in Iraq. They distributed stickers vowing "No Surrender."

His bus zigzagged across Iowa, over to New Hampshire and down to South Carolina, and at nearly every stop he displayed the full-page advertisement in the New York Times, posted by MoveOn.org mocking Gen. Petraeus as "General Betray Us."

"It's disgraceful," Mr. McCain told voters in Iowa, displaying his anger, and challenged his Democratic opponents to denounce the message.

The badgering questions from reporters, asking whether and when he would drop out of the race, began to recede as he stayed stubbornly on message: The surge will work, given time.

That message would soon be delivered loud and clear by the very general in charge of making the surge work. Mr. McCain's future in politics was clearly at stake.

The hearing

The buildup was dramatic: Gen. Petraeus and Ryan C. Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, testified before the House and the Senate beginning Sept. 11, 2007, six years to the day after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.

The White House had deflected the verdict on the success of the surge until the general and ambassador could testify, and now, against a media backdrop of speculation that the administration would be forced to re-evaluate the war, Democratic critics in Congress waited to pounce.

But Gen. Petraeus, in full dress khaki with dozens of television lights playing on the four stars on his shoulders and a lavish array of medals and service ribbons on his chest, sat unbowed and unmoved through six hours of grueling questions. "As a bottom line upfront," he said, "the military objectives of the surge are, in large measure, being met. In recent months, in the face of tough enemies in the brutal summer heat of Iraq, coalition and Iraqi security forces have achieved progress in the security arena.

"The level of security incidents has decreased significantly since the start of the surge of offensive operations in mid-June."

The general took the bat out of Democrats' hands. "Based on all this, and on the further progress we believe we can achieve over the next few months, I believe that we will be able to reduce our forces to the pre-surge level of brigade combat teams by next summer without jeopardizing the security gains that we have fought so hard to achieve."

When he appeared the next day to answer more questions from senators, Mr. Obama was ready. "I think the surge has had some impact, as I suggested, " he said, his "just one question" prefaced by a seven-minute speech. But he added: "I would argue that the impact has been relatively modest given the investment."

Mr. McCain was briefer. "Gen. Petraeus, it's astonishing the number of things that people come up with, but one of the latest statements is that the surge had nothing to do with Anbar province and the rather stunning success we've had there. How do you respond to that?"

"Well," the general replied, "the success in Anbar province is a political success but it is a political success that has been enabled very much by our forces, who have been enabled by having additional forces."

Mr. McCain cut in with the question to emphasize a point: "Would it have happened without the surge?"

Gen. Petraeus replied: "It would not have happened as quickly without the surge and I don't know whether we could have capitalized on it the way that we have without the surge."

Mr. Graham sums up the effect of the exchange succinctly: "Petraeus comes back, Crocker comes back in September, and they knock it out of the park. We're in the ballgame now."

'Mac is back'

McCain aides - and especially the candidate himself - thought they now knew how to proceed with the presidential campaign: The senator had survived by being himself, being true to long-held beliefs, and they decided he should continue with that strategy.

Mr. McCain surrounded himself with a tight group of longtime friends and aides and set his sights on New Hampshire. "After we had the meltdown and went from a national campaign of 30 states down to two or three, that put a lot more emphasis on New Hampshire," said Steve Duprey, a former Republican chairman in New Hampshire who now is a top aide for Mr. McCain.

The senator later joked that he had spent so much time in the small state that some residents thought he lived there. Continuing as if he were continuing the quest of eight years earlier, he held more than 100 town-hall meetings, telling his unfunny jokes at every stop and shaking every hand offered along the way.

As the surge and the new counterinsurgency strategy began to reduce violence in Iraq, the moribund campaign quickened, and soon was back on the front pages and on the nightly television newscasts.

Mr. McCain began to enjoy a little winner's luck. The front-running Mr. Giuliani skipped the Iowa caucuses and Mr. Romney was overtaken by an unlikely upstart, Mike Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor. Mr. McCain followed Iowa with a solid win in New Hampshire, delivering a rousing victory speech to supporters waving "Mac is Back" placards. Like American prospects in Iraq, his campaign was reborn.

Over the following weeks, Mr. Romney won his native state of Michigan, and a second McCain victory in South Carolina blunted the Giuliani strategy of focusing on Florida. By the time the campaign got to there in late January, the McCain momentum was permanent, and he was en route to clinching the nomination.

Since then, Mr. McCain has painted his unwavering support for the surge as evidence of his ability to be commander in chief. He cites Mr. Obama's yearlong denial of American success in Iraq as evidence that Mr. Obama lacks the steadiness, foresight and judgment to make an effective commander in chief.

This summer, the Republican and his allies sharpened their attacks on Mr. Obama, questioning why he took just a single trip to Iraq before opposing the surge. "If the only time you had been to Iraq was in January 2006 and you're thinking about running for president as a Democrat, you heard what you wanted to hear," Mr. Graham said, echoing a now-common attack on Mr. Obama. "He saw what he wanted to see, he came back, and declared the war lost."

An exchange between Mr. Obama and Katie Couric of CBS News, conducted in Amman, Jordan, in the midst of his extensive overseas trip to the Middle East and Europe in July, illustrates the presumptive Democratic nominee's difficulty in addressing the surge now that it has worked.

"You raised a lot of eyebrows on this trip, saying, even knowing what you know now, you still would not have supported the surge," Mrs. Couric told him. "People may be scratching their heads and saying, 'Why?'"

When Mr. Obama deflected the question, she broke in: "But didn't the surge - "

"Let me finish, Katie," he said.

She did, but later broke in again, trying to pin down a direct answer.

"Katie, as ... you've asked me three different times, and I have said repeatedly that there is no doubt that our troops helped to reduce violence. There's no doubt."

Mrs. Couric persisted. "But yet you're saying, given what you know now, you still wouldn't support it, so I'm just trying to understand this. ... I really don't mean to belabor this, senator, because I'm really, I'm trying to figure out your position. Do you think the level of security in Iraq ... would exist today without the surge?"

His impatience showing, Mr. Obama replied: "Katie, I have no idea what would have happened had we applied my approach, which was to put more pressure on the Iraqis to arrive at a political reconciliation. So this is all hypotheticals. What I can say is that there's no doubt that our U.S. troops have contributed to a reduction of violence in Iraq."

Minutes later, Mr. McCain sat for an interview with the CBS anchor, blasting his presidential opponent and setting out what is at stake in the November election.

"Senator Obama has indicated by his failure to acknowledge the success of the surge that he would rather lose a war than lose a campaign," he said. "Senator Obama does not understand the challenges we face and he did not understand the need for the surge, and the fact that he did not understand that and still denies that it has succeeded, I think the American people will make a judgement."

Researcher John Sopko contributed to this story.

Monday, September 15, 2008

The Surge: The Epic Battle For A Free Iraq



Sunday, Aug. 06, 2006
Life In Hell: A Baghdad Diary
By Bobby Ghosh

A knot begins to form in my stomach exactly at 8 a.m., when I step into the small Fokker F-28 jet that will take me and 50 other passengers from Amman, Jordan, to Baghdad. I know what lies ahead: an hour's uneventful flying over unchanging desert, followed by the world's scariest landing--a steep, corkscrewing plunge into what used to be Saddam Hussein International Airport. Then an eight-mile drive into the city along what's known as the Highway of Death. I've made this trip more than 20 times since Royal Jordanian's civilian flights started three years ago, and you'd expect it would get easier. But the knot takes hold in my stomach every time.

I scan the cabin for familiar faces. The 50-odd passengers include the usual suspects--Western "security consultants" in faux fatigues, Iraqi officials in dark suits. And some surprises, like the three women in white Indian saris with blue borders. The nuns from the Missionaries of Charity, Mother Teresa's order, are a comforting sight. One of them, Sister Benedetta, kindly gives me a laminated picture of the soon-to-be saint and a genuine relic--a microchip-size piece of Teresa's sari. A lapsed Hindu, I'm nonetheless grateful for any and all gifts that purport to holiness; somewhere in my bags are a tiny sandalwood Ganesha, pages of the New Testament and a string of Islamic prayer beads. In Iraq, you want to have God--anybody's God--within easy reach.

Sister Benedetta smiles politely when I joke that many of our fellow passengers will be calling to their maker when the plane begins its hellish descent. To avoid being shot down by Iraqi insurgents, the pilot must stay at 30,000 ft. until the plane is directly over Baghdad airport, then bank into a spiraling dive, straightening up just yards from the runway. If you're looking out the window, it can feel as if the plane is in a free fall from which it can't possibly pull out. I've learned from experience to ask for an aisle seat.

The only thing worse than the view from the window is being seated next to someone who hasn't taken the flight before. During one especially difficult landing in 2004, a retired American cop wouldn't stop screaming "Oh, God! Oh, God!" I finally had to slap him on the face--on instructions from the flight attendant. Another time the man in the window seat was a muscular, heavily tattooed Polynesian ex-commando who spent an hour telling me of his life as a mercenary in a succession of South Pacific island nations--stories that often ended with his punching, stabbing or shooting somebody. When the Fokker began its steep descent, he began whimpering to Jesus and grabbing my forearm so tight, I felt my palm go cold from lack of circulation.

On this occasion, to my relief, the guy next to me is a fellow journalist and veteran of the nightmare landings. Even so, as we begin the descent, I move my hand away from the armrest. Looking over my shoulder, I see a familiar expression on the faces of my co-passengers: a mixture of fear and resignation. Sister Benedetta is staring up at the ceiling, her lips moving in prayer. I reach into my shirt pocket and surreptitiously rub my fingers over that laminated picture. When the Fokker's wheels hit the tarmac, 50 people sigh in unison, 50 stomachs unclench. But the relief is temporary; most of us still have to negotiate the Highway of Death. There have been hundreds of insurgent and terrorist attacks along its length since the U.S. military established its largest Iraqi base, Camp Victory, next to the airport three years ago. Many of the attacks are directed at U.S. patrols, but they have also killed scores of Iraqi noncombatants. Last summer two of my Iraqi colleagues were badly wounded when a roadside bomb went off next to their car on the Highway of Death; twice I've been caught in cross fire between insurgents and U.S. soldiers.

Recently the highway has become less deadly--perhaps the only place in Baghdad that can make such a claim. The once daily attacks along the road have given way to occasional strikes, like the twin suicide bombings in May that killed 14 Iraqis near Checkpoint 1, where arriving travelers meet transport waiting to take them into the city. U.S. officials claim the decline in attacks as a victory for military strategy, attributing it to the greatly increased visibility of Iraqi soldiers along the road. My contacts in the insurgency offer an alternative, equally plausible explanation: there are fewer U.S. patrols and convoys on the road than before, fewer targets to attack.

Although a ride on the Highway of Death once exaggerated the dangers lurking in Baghdad, it now does the opposite, lulling newcomers into a false sense of security. Even as the airport route has got somewhat safer, huge portions of the Iraqi capital have become far more dangerous. I pass one of those on the drive into the city: Amariyah, the mainly Sunni suburb adjacent to Camp Victory and home to Mahmud, one of my Iraqi colleagues. (The names of most of TIME's Iraqi employees have been changed in this article for their protection; working for a foreign company makes them targets for insurgents, and many lie, even to their closest neighbors, about what they do for a living.) A couple of years ago, it was easy to visit with Mahmud's family in their sand-colored two-story home; last year it became too perilous for foreigners after insurgent groups began operating in the area. Now, even Iraqis feel unsafe in Amariyah. Mahmud began to move out his extended family earlier this year when the neighborhood was taken over by a jihadi gang that imposed an extreme interpretation of Islamic law. Women were forbidden to drive, men were ordered not to wear shorts, and shops selling Western goods were firebombed.

As we drive past, I can hear a gun battle somewhere--the deep rumble of U.S. military M-16s and the higher-pitch clatter of AK-47s. The gunfire is a momentary distraction for Wisam, my driver, who is telling me about yesterday's atrocity--66 people killed when a suicide bomber detonated himself in a crowded market in the Shi'ite neighborhood of Sadr City. Last year that giant slum was the safest district in Baghdad. Now I mentally add it to the list of neighborhoods I can enter only at great risk.

Like many Iraqis, Wisam likes to drive pedal to the metal, and while it's a good idea to get away from Amariyah as fast as possible, I am acutely conscious that I'm not wearing my seat belt. Iraqis never wear one, and for me to buckle up would be like sticking a FOREIGNER ON BOARD sign on the windshield, a bad idea in a city where kidnapping gangs are known to cruise for lucrative targets. As an Indian, I can often pass for a local if I keep my mouth shut--my Arabic is rudimentary--but in public places I have to be careful to avoid other obvious signs of foreignness: seat belts, chewing gum, headphones.

To bring me up to date with the news, Wisam rattles off a long list of recent atrocities: a high-profile kidnapping here, a massacre there, a car bombing someplace else. Long before we reach the city, I've heard so many ghastly things that the harrowing flight is already a fading memory. Sensing my sinking spirits, Wisam apologizes for the overdose of grim tidings. "You know how it is in Iraq," he says with a grin. "All news is bad news." Then he tells me about the 10 bodies that were discovered in his neighborhood in the past few days, all of them his fellow Shi'ites. The bodies were decapitated, the heads never found. He tells me how, since a suicide bombing in a nearby neighborhood, his wife has been suffering anxiety attacks when she goes shopping. I feel ashamed that a mere hour's worth of Baghdad's reality has brought me down; Wisam and his family live it all the time.

For Iraqis, reality is not just a suicide bomber in a crowded marketplace or militias running amuck in the streets. It is an accumulation of daily dangers and dilemmas--and the growing certainty that things are about to get worse. American officials and Iraqi politicians who live and work in the fortified bubble of the Green Zone are still reluctant to use the words civil war. At the start of this year, they were dismissing an all-out battle between sects as impossible. In March they were saying it was improbable. Now they cautiously suggest it is not inevitable. And that's the optimistic perspective. A more despairing assessment was on display last week in departing British Ambassador William Patey's final diplomatic memo to London. "The prospect of a low intensity civil war and a de facto division of Iraq is probably more likely at this stage than a successful and substantial transition to a stable democracy," Patey wrote in his message, which was leaked to the British media. For ordinary Iraqis who live on the other side of the Green Zone's tall walls, the time to debate if and when civil war will start is past: it is already under way. It's a view that I share. After three years of dwindling optimism over Iraq's future, I now feel a mounting pessimism.

In the Red Zone (the name given to the rest of Baghdad by Green Zoners too nervous to venture outside the walls), the sporadic spurts of violence between Shi'ites and Sunnis have given way to a steady stream of blood. Partisans on both sides are arming themselves for battle, and ordinary folks are looking for ways to defend themselves. Owing to soaring demand, the price of a Chinese-made AK-47 has quadrupled, to $200, since the start of the year; the Russian-made version has doubled, to $600. The U.N. reports that nearly 6,000 Iraqis were killed in May and June, more than in any comparable period since the fall of Saddam. These days, almost all the killing is Iraqi on Iraqi. Many people are abandoning neighborhoods that were harmoniously mixed for centuries, instead seeking the safety of all-Shi'ite or Sunni-only districts. The government says more than 180,000 people have become refugees in their own country; tens of thousands of others are fleeing Iraq altogether. The political leadership, from Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on down, lacks both the stature and the will to bridge the chasm between the two communities. Caught in the middle, the U.S. military is unable to halt the bloodshed. Wisam is right: Iraq's news these days is all bad.

As a result, Iraqis have little time for other people's tragedies. The news from Lebanon has dominated Arab channels like al-Jazeera in recent weeks, but it hasn't resonated much with Iraqis. Politicians, especially Shi'ite leaders with ties to Iran, have issued predictable broadsides against Israel; some, like the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, have blamed the U.S. too. He orchestrated a large pro-Hizballah demonstration in his Sadr City stronghold last week--a protest against the bombing in Lebanon but also a piece of political theater designed to showcase the strength of his support (and a response to a muscle-flexing rally organized earlier by a rival Shi'ite leader). For the most part, ordinary Iraqis, although sympathetic to their coreligionists in Lebanon, have shown little interest in a conflict that seems both far away and from another era--a leftover war from the 20th century. Not only are the protagonists familiar, but so too are their tactics and weapons: Israeli artillery, Hizballah rockets.

Those looking for parallels in Iraq will find few. The war in Iraq is about 21st century issues, like terrorism and extremist Islam. The very survival of a nation hangs in the balance. It is a murky battlefield, where combatants are hard to identify and alliances shift constantly, so nothing and nobody are predictable. Even the weapons are postmodern: improvised explosive devices, car bombs, suicide bombers. And the Iraq war is far deadlier; on almost any given day, casualty figures in Baghdad alone dwarf those in Lebanon and Israel combined. At the house TIME uses as its base in Baghdad, our staff of 25 Iraqis snort disdainfully as news broadcasters announce the daily death toll in the Levant. "They count their dead in dozens. We count ours in hundreds," says Ali al-Shaheen, our bureau manager. Only when Israeli bombs killed 28 people in the Lebanese village of Qana did it register on al-Shaheen's radar. Watching the images of the carnage, he declares, "Now they know how Iraqis live."

Every so often, something happens that causes the Iraqi government and the Bush Administration to announce that a turning point has arrived for the beleaguered country. In the month that I was away from Baghdad, there were two such events: the killing of terrorist Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi and the appointment, after weeks of political haggling, of new ministers of Defense and the Interior. The ministers, a Sunni and Shi'ite, respectively, had been touted as independent and nonsectarian--new brooms to brush away the rampant corruption in the two crucial security ministries. Interior, in particular, would be cleansed of the Shi'ite militias that had infiltrated all levels of the police and other security forces and turned them into instruments of Shi'ite vengeance against their former Sunni oppressors.

The ministers were the last bricks on the façade that is the all-party national-unity government of Prime Minister al-Maliki. Earlier in the year I had watched from close quarters as U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad worked tirelessly to make that government possible, pleading, cajoling until all the political factions--Shi'ite, Sunni, Kurdish and secular--agreed to get in the big tent together. Relieved, the Bush Administration announced that the participation of all groups, especially the recalcitrant Sunnis, would allow al-Maliki's government to succeed where the U.S. military had failed, in bringing to heel both the Sunni insurgency and the rising might of the Shi'ite militias. Never mind that the Prime Minister was himself a Shi'ite partisan until his nomination--whereupon he sought to reinvent himself as a nonsectarian leader--and that his party had stronger ties to Tehran than to Washington. An ornery figure, al-Maliki is a backroom politician plainly ill at ease in public; few Iraqis had even heard of him, and few are convinced that his rancorous all-party government can last the year, much less its full four-year term.

Already, U.S. officials are finding it hard to keep up the optimistic spin. Shi'ite and Sunni politicians may now sit together, but their mutual hostility is undiminished, undermining the government--and al-Maliki can only look on helplessly. A political lightweight and compromise candidate, the Prime Minister doesn't have the clout to bash heads, much less deliver on his promises to pursue insurgents with "no mercy" and crush the militias "with an iron fist." As the politicians continue to bicker, the big tent is looking shaky; there were calls last week for several ministers--including the Interior chief--to be replaced.

The failure of new political nostrums is driving Iraqi and U.S. officials to retry military remedies that have been thoroughly discredited: massive security rings around Baghdad, high-visibility troop presence in the streets and sweeping house-to-house searches. If Iraq has taught us anything in the past three years--and Lebanon in the past three weeks--it is that conventional military tactics don't work in an asymmetrical conflict. Sheer numbers and firepower count for very little. Despite an ongoing 50,000-man, joint U.S.-Iraqi military operation dubbed Operation Forward Together to flush Baghdad clean of nationalist insurgents, jihadist terrorists and sectarian militias, the capital is as dangerous as ever. If anything, the Shi'ite militias are getting more brazen; a few days after my return, they entered the largely Sunni neighborhood of al-Jihad and slaughtered at least 50 people, including several women and children. Eight days later, Sunni fighters attacked a market in Mahmoudiya, just south of the capital, and mowed down more than 50 Shi'ites. Increasingly, attacks are taking place in broad daylight, leaving Iraqis to wonder how their security forces can overlook large numbers of armed men moving through the streets.

The failure of Forward Together is a blow to the Bush Administration's hopes of quickly scaling down the U.S. military presence. With some 7,200 American and coalition soldiers joining 42,500 Iraqis, the operation was meant to showcase the growing ability of Iraqi security forces to protect their citizens. The experiment was effectively declared a failure two weeks ago when Bush and al-Maliki announced in Washington that more U.S. troops would be sent to protect Baghdad. But will that work? Probably not. When the full might of the U.S. military has been brought to bear in an Iraqi city--think Fallujah, Tall 'Afar, Samarra, al-Qaim--the enemy has simply melted away, taking its terrorist tactics to places that are inadequately defended. And when U.S. forces have eventually stood down, leaving the policing to Iraqis, the enemy has returned to the very places that had supposedly been cleaned up--at the cost of American blood. There is no reason to believe that a re-tinkered Operation Forward Together will be any more successful, especially since insurgents, terrorists and militias have had ample warning that more Americans are coming, giving them time to pack their rocket-propelled grenades and leave.

Nor has there been much progress on other security matters. The government's claims that several Sunni insurgent groups have responded to offers of amnesty have yet to be proved; some Sunni leaders say those who have opened negotiations are fringe figures with little sway over the insurgency. As for the jihadis, they seem unhindered by Forward Together. The Sadr City market explosion proved that the lull following al-Zarqawi's death was temporary. Suicide bombings have again become a daily headline. Many fit into a deadly new pattern: as crowds are drawn to the scene of the first explosion, a second device is detonated, doubling the toll. There was even a double bombing 100 yards from the main entrance of the Green Zone, the highly fortified enclave that houses the seat of the Iraqi government and the headquarters of the U.S. military. The twin blasts--one a car bomb, the other a suicide bomber--killed 16 people near some small shops where journalists emerging from the Green Zone on hot afternoons stop to buy cold sodas. Although the Green Zone is one of the most protected places in Iraq, the entrance known as Checkpoint 3 is one of the most dangerous. Last summer I and several other TIME staff members were fortunate to be just out of harm's way when a suicide bomber struck a kebab stand near the shops. The blast took the bomber's head clear off his body and sent it rolling down the road to Wisam's feet. He kicked it away dismissively.

Powerless to stop the killing, al-Maliki's government has also failed to improve the lot of the living. Crime continues to soar, especially the booming business of kidnapping for ransom. U.S. officials say as many as 40 Iraqis are kidnapped every day. Ransom demands range from thousands of dollars to millions; many victims are never heard from again. Services are a cruel joke. As summer temperatures climb to 120˚, there has been no perceptible improvement in electricity or the water supply. And at a time when people desperately need their gasoline-powered generators to operate ceiling fans and air conditioners, fuel has become scarce. The wait in a gas-station line can last all day. Last month the black-market rate for a liter of gas briefly reached $1--exactly 100 times the official price just before the war. My Iraqi colleagues are amused when I read them stories about Americans complaining of high gas prices.

High fuel prices have yielded one bonus: with more and more people keeping their cars at home, the roads are relatively free of traffic snarl-ups. It's typical of Baghdad that when something seems to get better--whether traffic or the ride from the airport--it's usually because something else has got much worse.

Amid this unremitting misery, Iraqis struggle for some semblance of normality. In Baghdad, the 9 p.m. curfew means that the traditional family outings of summer--an evening picnic on the banks of the Tigris, dinner at a kebab restaurant or a late-night drive to an ice cream parlor--are all out of the question. Visiting with friends and family is impossible unless you're prepared to go early and stay overnight. It's an especially frustrating time for children; although it's the summer break, parents are reluctant to let kids out of the house. Danger hides everywhere. Last week several teenagers were among 11 people killed and 14 hurt when two bombs went off at a soccer field in the Shi'ite district of Amil. Al-Shaheen, our bureau manager, has three children going stir-crazy at home. "They feel imprisoned," he says. "For entertainment, they get on my wife's nerves during the day and on mine at night."

The only available escapism is via TV. The one post-Saddam freedom Iraqis can unreservedly enjoy is access to satellite television--Lebanese music videos, Egyptian soaps, the Oprah Winfrey Show (with Arabic subtitles), sports. The soccer World Cup was a welcome distraction. Since Iraq didn't qualify, people invested their emotions in foreign teams, like Brazil and Italy. When the Italians won the tournament, it was our driver Wisam--not our Milanese photographer, Franco Pagetti--who had to be restrained from shooting an AK-47 into the air, the traditional Arab celebration. But even the enjoyment of a faraway sporting event can be poisoned by sectarian suspicions: a Sunni neighbor asked me, with a knowing smirk, whether our Shi'ite staff members had supported the Iranian team. When I said no, he was surprised. Many Sunnis believe that Shi'ite sympathies--and not just in sporting matters--lie with Iraq's ancient enemy to the east. "In Najaf and Basra, the Shi'ites were praying for Iran to win," he said disdainfully. "What do you expect from these people?" When I asked him if he had supported the two teams from Sunni-majority countries in the tournament, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia, he changed the subject.

Fear of kidnapping is pervasive. To hide their wealth, many Iraqis choose to live well below their means. While on R. and R. in London, I met Hassan, a Baghdad businessman (he asked that his full name be concealed for his protection) who said he had "made millions" since the fall of Saddam, importing consumer electronics like refrigerators, washing machines and air conditioners. But his modest single-story home in the middle-class Yarmuk neighborhood still looks as it did when he inherited it from his father, an army captain. "I won't even put on a fresh coat of paint because that would arouse suspicions," he said. He drives around Baghdad in a beat-up Japanese car "even though I can afford a top-of-the-line Mercedes." Only when he's abroad does he live large, booking suites in the best hotels, buying expensive suits that he leaves with business associates and renting--yes--a top-of-the-line Mercedes. "If I live like this in Baghdad, there will be a competition among the kidnappers to take me."

Hassan's business interests keep him coming back. Yet for many Baghdad residents, the only hope for a decent life is to escape altogether. Since the school year ended in June, thousands of families have been heading to safer parts of the country, like the Kurdish north, where an economic boom carries the promise of jobs. Those who can afford it are going abroad, mainly to Syria and Jordan. "The middle class is evaporating," says Iyad Allawi, who served as Iraq's interim Prime Minister in 2004 and part of '05. "Every Middle Eastern country I go to, they tell me immigration from Iraq is rising fast."

Mahmud, my Iraqi colleague who fled Amariyah, has sent his wife and four kids to Amman. Whether they will return when schools reopen will depend on the security situation. Mahmud is not optimistic. "I should have made them pack winter clothes," he says.

Sunnis like Mahmud now feel vulnerable in Baghdad, which for centuries was the citadel from which they lorded it over Iraq's Shi'ite majority. For the first three years after Saddam's fall, much of the violence in and around the capital was committed against Shi'ites by Sunni insurgents and jihadis. But since the beginning of this year, Shi'ite death squads--widely believed to emanate from militias like the Mahdi Army and the Iran-trained Badr Organization--have become the main practitioners of terrorist violence. Each side has its signature style of murder. When Iraqis hear news of car bombings or suicide bombers, they don't need to be told that Sunni jihadis were involved; when bodies bearing signs of gruesome torture (like the use of electric drills) turn up in a garbage dump or in the sewers, it's assumed Shi'ite militias were responsible.

What makes the militias especially dangerous is the impunity with which they act. Since many policemen and soldiers are their former comrades-in-arms, militiamen are often allowed to roam unchecked. They are routinely accused of conducting "joint operations"--a euphemism for murderous rampages that police watch or even join. Sometimes police are accused of moonlighting as militiamen, using official vehicles and weapons. A three-car convoy belonging to Sunni M.P. Tayseer al-Mashhadani was stopped last month by 30 gunmen in a Shi'ite suburb. Al-Mashhadani and seven bodyguards were bundled into unmarked cars and driven away. An eighth bodyguard escaped and reported that the abductors had police-issue weapons. Al-Mashhadani hasn't been released. An even more audacious snatch came soon after: men in uniforms grabbed the chief of Iraq's Olympic Committee and 30 other sports officials. (Ten have been released, but the chief remains in captivity.) Men in uniform snatched 26 men last week from two offices less than a mile from TIME's house.

The government's standard response to each new outrage is to deny that police were involved and instead finger "criminal gangs" wearing knockoff uniforms and using stolen weapons and vehicles. Occasionally, blame is directed at the militias but never by name. After all, the political groups that control the militias are key components of the Shi'ite coalition that has the most seats in parliament and that includes al-Maliki's party. The only militia to feel the Prime Minister's "iron fist" was the toothless Mujahedin-e-Khalq, a small, unarmed band of Iranian rebels dedicated to toppling the regime in Tehran; it had been confined to a single base outside Baghdad and was monitored by the U.S. Nobody had accused the Mujahedin-e-Khalq of any atrocities on Iraqi soil, and al-Maliki's decision to evict the group smacked of tokenism. Sunni politicians seized on the eviction as proof that al-Maliki was doing Tehran's bidding.

For Sunnis in Baghdad, the sight of policemen is cause for concern rather than reassurance. Traffic checkpoints are especially perilous. Recently three TIME staff members--brothers, all Sunni--were detained at a police checkpoint for five hours. They began to worry when a Shi'ite friend who had been riding with them was allowed to leave. When the men showed their media badges, issued by the U.S. military, the cops accused them of being American spies. "We'll send you to the Interior Ministry," a cop said, obviously enjoying their discomfort as he bundled them into the back of a pickup truck. "You may be released or jailed, or maybe somebody will use an electric drill on you." In the end, the TIME men were able to talk their way out of captivity after the owner of a shop near the checkpoint vouched for them. "The police realized that if we disappeared, the shopkeeper might be able to identify them as the ones who captured us," says one of the brothers. A few days later, one of the brothers had another close shave when he stopped in a busy neighborhood to buy black-market gas. A car bomb went off 50 yards away, destroying his car. Luckily, he had stepped out of the vehicle to negotiate with the seller; he got away with minor shrapnel wounds. One tiny shard ripped into his shirt pocket in a direct line to his heart. The shrapnel arrowed through a thick wad of Iraqi currency and some loose paper and was finally stopped by his plastic ID card. "At last, I can say money saved my life," he jokes.

Almost every Sunni family I meet seems to have a horror story that starts with a policeman at a checkpoint asking for identification. It's profiling, Iraqi style. The harassment ranges from getting insulting, sniggering comments ("Nice car. Where did you steal it?") to being handcuffed, blindfolded and hauled off to prison or, worse, a torture chamber. The most vulnerable are those who have obviously Sunni names, such as Omar. I have interviewed more than a dozen Omars, including two of Mahmud's nephews, who have endured varying degrees of persecution from police or militias. As a precaution, many Sunnis are buying fake ID cards with safe Shi'ite names.

Feeling the heat from the militias and security forces, Baghdad's Sunnis know their best hope for protection lies in the Americans, the very occupying forces they have despised for toppling them from power. My meeting with a high-level commander of a Sunni insurgent group takes an unexpected turn when he angrily demands, "Where are the Americans? Why aren't they protecting our people?" For two years, the man has boasted to me about his fighters' operations against U.S. soldiers. Now he wants them as a shield from the marauding militias. It's clear from his indignation that the irony escapes him.

The Bush Administration seems to be finally coming out of its state of denial about the danger of sectarianism. For months, officials and military brass have doggedly maintained that the Shi'ite-on-Sunni sectarian killings were one-offs, unlikely to spread across the community. That posture began to change when Shi'ite mobs went on a murderous spree in Baghdad's Sunni neighborhoods after the Feb. 22 bombing of the Shi'ite shrine in Samarra. By the time U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld made his latest visit to Baghdad last month, the assessment was more realistic. General George Casey, the U.S. commander in Iraq, told Rumsfeld that Shi'ite death squads were catalyzing a surge in sectarian violence. And General John Abizaid, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East, told a Senate committee in Washington last week that if the sectarian violence continued to spiral, Iraq "could move toward civil war."

But recognizing the problem isn't the same as having a solution. The current military strategy isn't succeeding, as evidenced by the continuing tit-for-tat sectarian killings. U.S. and Iraqi forces last month stormed some buildings in the Mahdi Army's stronghold of Sadr City, killing several fighters and arresting a top commander. But the anticipated knockout punch was never delivered. Al-Maliki, says a senior Iraqi government official, "doesn't want a war against Muqtada al-Sadr because it would open him up to charges of killing his fellow Shi'ites--like what Allawi faced." After Allawi gave the green light for U.S. forces to attack the Mahdi Army in 2004, he became a political pariah to Shi'ites. And al-Maliki is loath to antagonize al-Sadr after working hard to win his endorsement of the national-unity government.

For Sunnis, the failure to smash the Mahdi Army is not so much an indictment of al-Maliki as proof of a U.S. double standard. Salam al-Zaubai, a Sunni and one of al-Maliki's two Deputy Prime Ministers, complains that U.S. forces treat the militias with kid gloves. "When they attacked the Sunni resistance, they flattened entire cities, like Fallujah," he says. "But when it comes to Sadr City, their approach is different. Why?" For their part, residents of Sadr City ask why the U.S. is attacking the militias--seen as Robin Hood figures--when they should be looking for the Sunni terrorists who bombed the market.

Amid all the cursing and complaining, there's an unexpected benefit for the U.S. military: the proliferating investigations into the killing of civilians by American troops are being forgotten. In our previous meeting two months ago, the insurgent leader had been cursing the Marines accused in the massacre of innocent civilians in Haditha. Since then, the accumulation of atrocities by Iraq's militias has altered his perspective. "Haditha was nothing compared to what the militias are doing," he says.

It's hard not to sympathize with Al-Maliki. The Prime Minister has the near impossible task of repairing the damage wrought by three years' worth of poorly considered policies and half-measures, most of them instituted by U.S. officials and generals who have long since gone home. "I'm tempted to get him a coffee mug with the slogan WORLD'S WORST JOB," a Western diplomat told me in May, when al-Maliki was sworn in. "They've just handed him a toothbrush and told him to clean up the mountain of a mess left by [former U.S. administrator] Paul Bremer, Allawi and [former Prime Minister Ibrahim] al-Jaafari."

Al-Maliki is getting very little help from other Iraqi leaders. The national-unity government is anything but unified. Shi'ite and Sunni ministers routinely contradict one another. It's hard to get consensus even among his fellow Shi'ites. His offer of amnesty for Sunni insurgents was compromised when a powerful Shi'ite leader publicly disagreed about who should be pardoned. Abdul Aziz al-Hakim said insurgents who had killed U.S. service personnel should be pardoned, directly contradicting al-Maliki's promise that those with American blood on their hands would not qualify for amnesty. Al-Maliki's plan was also criticized by al-Sadr. It's probably no coincidence that al-Hakim and al-Sadr control the two largest armed Shi'ite militias, the Badr Organization and Mahdi Army, respectively.

While al-Maliki at least tries to present himself as a unifying figure, railing against Sunni insurgents and Shi'ite militias, many of his partners in the government are blatantly sectarian. Political leaders express outrage over the atrocities committed against their own sect but won't acknowledge that the other side, too, is bleeding. They often dismiss those wounds as self-inflicted. After the bombing of the Samarra shrine, many Sunni leaders told me the blast was the work of Shi'ite agents provocateurs working in concert with Iranian intelligence operatives. Likewise, Mahdi Army commanders routinely accuse Sunni insurgents of committing atrocities against their own kind and then blaming the Shi'ites.

A typical encounter was my interview with Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, the seniormost Sunni in the Iraqi government. We met in his chintz-laden Green Zone office on the day of the al-Jihad murders. Many of the victims had been dragged out of their homes and shot dead in the street. As usual, the finger of blame pointed to the Mahdi Army. After al-Hashimi had fulminated about the slaughter of his fellow Sunnis, I asked whether the murdering militiamen might have been seeking revenge for the previous week's bombing of the market in Sadr City. Al-Hashimi's response was to claim that militiamen had planted the bomb, deliberately killing their fellow Shi'ites in order to justify revenge killings of Sunnis. "They were able to attack Sunni mosques within an hour of the market bomb," he said. "This has to have been premeditated."

Such bizarre logic quickly becomes received wisdom in a society in which even the highest officials in the land propagate outlandish conspiracy theories. The speaker of Iraq's parliament, Mahmud al-Mashhadani, a Sunni, announced at a press conference in Bahrain that "an entire Israeli brigade has entered Iraq ... trying to infiltrate various parties." That phantom force, he continued, is "camped at Babylon, whose destruction signifies the survival of the state of Israel in their holy books."

The few secular politicians with any name recognition, like Allawi, have become marginalized, their voices drowned by the sectarian din. In two general elections, Allawi has failed to get more than 14% of the vote, and the flight of middle-class Iraqis is eroding his natural constituency. He bemoans the growing power of sectarian forces but can only watch in despair. In private conversations even politicians with no pretensions of secularism occasionally wish for a unifying leader. Some months ago, Sunni leader Saleh al-Mutlak and I chatted about the kind of leadership it would take to pull Iraq back from the brink. We agreed that there were no giants on the political landscape, and he shook his head dolefully. "Not only that," he said, sighing, "but the political system we have created makes it impossible for such a figure to emerge." Politicians, he said, have discovered that the easiest way to win votes is to appeal to sectarian chauvinism; they have little incentive to take the higher, more difficult road. Al-Mutlak returned to that theme in a recent interview with a local paper, saying the country needed "an Iraqi Mandela."

Alas, statesmen can't be wished into existence. In 31/2 years of covering Iraq, I have not come across a single leader who has seemed able to rise above petty political or sectarian interests. Never mind a Mandela; there's not even an Iraqi Hamid Karzai. The beleaguered Afghan President has more credibility with his people than any Iraqi politician can honestly claim. In the absence of statesmen, I fear the sectarian furies that have been unleashed in Iraq will hack away at the last vestiges of sense and decency and drag the country into a final fight to the death.

Green Zoners are still hoping against hope it doesn't come to that. Pairing familiar words in odd new ways, Ambassador Khalilzad recently told a Washington audience that Americans need to be "tactically patient" and "strategically optimistic" about Iraq's future. On his first official visit to Britain and the U.S. two weeks ago, al-Maliki also told the Blair and Bush administrations what they wanted to hear: that a civil war could be averted.

But at least the Prime Minister has stopped trying to spin his own people. A few days before he left for Britain and the U.S., a desperate al-Maliki gave a televised speech to his parliament, pleading with his fellow politicians to set aside their differences. Looking like a man at his wit's end, he warned that national reconciliation was one "last chance" to avert a civil war: "If it fails, I don't know what the destiny of Iraq will be." For a second, I thought I recognized the expression on his face. It's the one I had seen on the faces of my fellow passengers on the flight into Baghdad--that mixture of fear and resignation, just before the descent into hell.

To submit questions to Aparisim Ghosh about life in Baghdad, visit time.com

With reporting by Charles Crain/Baghdad, Mark Thompson/Washington, DOUGLAS WALLER/WASHINGTON



August 31, 2008
Troop ‘Surge’ Took Place Amid Doubt and Debate
WASHINGTON — The White House has long touted the “surge” of forces in Iraq as one of President Bush’s proudest achievements. But that decision, one of Mr. Bush’s most consequential as commander in chief, was made only after months of tumultuous debate within the administration, according to still-secret memorandums and interviews with a broad range of current and former officials.

In January 2007, at a time when the situation in Iraq appeared the bleakest, Mr. Bush chose a bold option that was at odds with what many of his civilian and military advisers, including his field commander, initially recommended. Mr. Bush’s plan to send more than 20,000 troops to carry out a new counterinsurgency strategy has helped to reverse the spiral of sectarian killings in Iraq.

But Mr. Bush’s penchant to defer to commanders in the field and to a powerful defense secretary delayed the development of a new approach until conditions in Iraq, in the words of a November 2006 analysis by the Central Intelligence Agency, resembled anarchy and “civil war.”

When the White House began its formal review of Iraq strategy that month, the Pentagon favored a stepped-up effort to transfer responsibility to Iraqi forces that would have facilitated American troop cuts.

The State Department promoted an alternative that would have focused on fighting terrorists belonging to Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, containing the violence in Baghdad and intervening to quell sectarian violence only when it reached the proportions of “mass killing.”

The American ambassador to Baghdad argued that he should be given broad authority to negotiate a political compact among the Iraqis.

“The proposals to send more U.S. forces to Iraq would not produce a long-term solution and would make our policy less, not more, sustainable,” the ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, wrote in a classified cable.

Members of the National Security Council staff made an initial effort to explore a possible troop increase by October, drafting a paper that raised the prospect that the United States might “double down” in Iraq by sending more troops there.

Because some aides to the Joint Chiefs of Staff were suggesting at the time that the military was stretched too thin to send many more troops, another security council staff member, William J. Luti, a retired Navy captain, was asked to quietly determine whether forces were available. Mr. Luti reported that five brigades’ worth of additional combat forces could be sent and recommended that they be deployed. The idea later won additional support among some officials as a result of a detailed study by Gen. Jack Keane, the former vice chief of staff at the Army, and Frederick W. Kagan, a military specialist, that was published by the American Enterprise Institute.

In the end, the troop reinforcement proposal split the military. Even after the president had made the basic decision to send additional troops, Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the top American commander in Iraq, never sought more than two brigades, about 8,000 troops in all, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates reported to Mr. Bush in late December. But General Casey’s approach substantially differed from those of two officers who wanted a much bigger effort: the No. 2 commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, and Gen. David H. Petraeus, who helped oversee the military’s new counterinsurgency manual and whose views were known by the White House before he was publicly named to replace General Casey, administration officials said.

Current and former officials from the Bush administration and the military agreed to disclose new details about the debate over the troop increase in response to repeated requests. Most insisted on anonymity because the documents were still classified, but said they believed the historical record should reflect the considerations that were being weighed at the time.

Troop Reduction Strategy

On Aug. 17, 2006, Mr. Bush conferred in a videoconference with his top military commanders and senior advisers.

General Casey’s strategy was to gradually transfer authority to the Iraqi forces and progressively reduce American troops. He had told officials in Washington during a June visit that he hoped to reduce the number of American combat brigades to five or six by the end of 2007 from the 14 that were deployed at the time.

By August, the sectarian killings had led General Casey to modestly increase his forces. The hope was that American forces would help clear insurgent and militia-infested neighborhoods in Baghdad, the Iraqi capital, while Iraqi troops would be brought in to secure them. After that, the push to make a transition to Iraqi control would continue.

During the videoconference with the president, General Casey said he had enough troops but said he was not sure the Iraqis could “deliver” on securing the neighborhoods. Mr. Bush underscored that more American troops were available if the commander needed them. “We must succeed,” Mr. Bush told General Casey, according to notes taken by a participant. “We will commit the resources. If they can’t, we will. If the bicycle teeters, put our hand back on it.”

“I support you guys 100 percent, but I need to ask you tough questions,” Mr. Bush added. “Different times call for different kinds of questions.”

It was hardly the first time that officials had raised questions about the American approach in Iraq. In March 2006, Philip D. Zelikow, a senior aide to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, called in a memorandum for a “massive effort to improve security in Baghdad and surrounding areas, and a reckoning with the most violent Shia/Sadrist militias.”

He elaborated on that theme in a paper he drafted in June with James F. Jeffrey, now Mr. Bush’s deputy national security adviser, that recommended “selective counterinsurgency” that might involve additional American forces.

Some aides had also hoped that a meeting that Mr. Bush held at Camp David in June would signal the start of a major review. That did not happen, but over the summer, the security council staff members began a critique of the strategy.

By October, the aides, Meghan O’Sullivan, Brett McGurk and Peter D. Feaver, had collaborated on the paper that raised the prospect of a troop increase. J. D. Crouch, the deputy national security adviser, called in Mr. Luti to ask for a separate look.

After contacting the Army staff, Mr. Luti submitted a confidential briefing in October titled, “Changing the Dynamics: Surge and Fight, Create Breathing Space and Then Accelerate the Transition.”

The briefing called for a substantial troop increase, which Mr. Luti later defined as sending 20,000 additional troops — about five brigades — to Baghdad and other hot spots in Iraq. The National Security Council staff was trying to walk a fine line under a Bush White House that cast staff members as coordinators, not advocates. Stephen J. Hadley, Mr. Bush’s national security adviser, later gave a copy to Gen. Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and asked for his assessment.

Public Support ‘in Jeopardy’

Three days after the 2006 midterm Congressional elections, the White House finally convened a formal governmentwide review. The Republicans had taken a beating at the polls and the Iraq Study Group, a nonpartisan panel led by Lee H. Hamilton, the former Democratic representative, and James A. Baker III, the secretary of state to the first President Bush, was preparing to publish its recommendations — to step up efforts to train Iraqi troops and withdraw virtually all American combat brigades by spring 2008.

At a Nov. 22 White House meeting, top aides outlined an “emerging consensus” on the way ahead. There was wide agreement that a successful outcome in Iraq was vital for the Bush administration’s “war on terror” and a candid assessment of the difficulties.

A document prepared for the review stated: “Our center of gravity — public support — is in jeopardy because of doubts that our Iraq efforts are on a trajectory leading to success.”

Each agency outlined its position in a series of classified papers. Civilian Pentagon officials endorsed General Casey’s strategy making transition a top priority.

“General Casey has a good plan. He has identified ways to do things faster and accelerate the timeline to Iraqi self-reliance,” said a Nov. 22 memorandum by policy officials in the office of the secretary of defense. “There may be some opportunities outside of Baghdad — Anbar; border control — for a relatively small surge force to have a noticeable impact. (The uniformed military remains against the surge force without a clearly defined objective.)”

A classified paper by the Joint Chiefs of Staff also argued for “accelerating Iraqis into ‘operational lead.’ ” It proposed a number of measures, including assigning one American brigade to each Iraqi division, to improve the performance of Iraqi troops.

Ms. Rice and her top deputies prepared a paper on “Advancing America’s Interests, Preserving Iraq’s Independence” that recommended that the United States focus on “core” interests like fighting terrorism and countering Iranian aggression. Moving to the periphery of the capital, American forces would contain the violence and intervene in the sectarian fighting in Baghdad only if there were “mass killings or mass expulsions.” State Department aides were not aware of the Luti paper raising the prospect that substantial American reinforcements might be available, despite Pentagon complaints that troops were overstretched.

On the political front, the United States would no longer count on efforts to encourage the Iraqi leadership in the Green Zone to reconcile their differences. Instead, the United States would emphasize efforts on the local level and double the number of civilian “provincial reconstruction teams” to help the Iraqis rebuild their infrastructure and improve governance.

John P. Hannah, a senior aide to Vice President Dick Cheney, urged a new effort to strengthen ties with Shiites, a majority of Iraq’s population. Many Shiites, he said, believed the United States was more concerned with countering Shiite militias than fighting Sunni insurgents. On Nov. 30, Mr. Bush met in Amman, Jordan, with Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, who advanced his own proposal that American forces pull back to the outskirts of Baghdad to fight Sunni insurgents while Iraqi forces took control of the capital. With violence escalating out of control, few American officials thought that was feasible. Mr. Bush told the Iraqi prime minister that General Casey would study the plan and said that the United States could send more troops if the Iraqis removed political impediments to the Americans’ ability to confront Shiite factions involved in sectarian attacks and took other steps to rise above sectarianism.

Still, the debate continued to swirl. In an early December meeting of top officials, Mr. Cheney argued for sending forces to address the sectarian violence in Baghdad, while Ms. Rice reiterated her argument that there was little the military could do to stop sectarian violence there, according to notes taken by a participant.

A ‘Slow-Motion Lateral’

Mr. Bush signaled his decision to pursue some kind of troop increase in Iraq when his National Security Council met Dec. 8 and Dec. 9. The idea was to make protection of the Iraqi population an important goal and reduce violence before resuming efforts to transfer responsibilities to the Iraqis. Invoking a sports metaphor, he described the surge as a “slow-motion lateral” to Iraqi control.

Still, the size of the deployment and exactly how it would be used were not settled. Would the “surge” be a slightly expanded version of General Casey’s approach toward securing Baghdad with limited American forces? Or would it represent a radical break with the current strategy?

By now, there was a split in the military community. General Odierno had taken over in early December as the second-ranking officer in Iraq. He conducted a review that called for a minimum of five additional brigades in and around Baghdad and two more battalions in Anbar Province to reinforce efforts to work with Sunni tribes there.

As a subordinate to General Casey, General Odierno had no role in the security council review. But his views were known to General Keane, the retired four-star general who had helped oversee the study for the American Enterprise Institute that advocated adding five Army brigades and two Marine regiments. In separate meetings with Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney on Dec. 11, General Keane relayed General Odierno’ assessment, which was forwarded by General Pace as well.

Along with Mr. Kagan, General Keane also described in detail to Mr. Cheney and his staff his own plan calling for American forces to be deployed in mixed Sunni-Shiite neighborhoods in Baghdad to demonstrate that the United States would be even-handed in protecting civilians.

Donald H. Rumsfeld’s resignation on Nov. 6, and Mr. Gates’s swearing-in to replace him as defense secretary in mid-December, removed some of the institutional resistance at the Pentagon to the “surge.” Ms. Rice also became more supportive after it was made clear that demands would be made of the Iraqis.

Mr. Gates flew to Baghdad in late December to confer with General Casey and Mr. Maliki. On the flight, Eric S. Edelman, the undersecretary of defense for policy, gave Mr. Gates a copy of the enterprise institute study.

During his Baghdad meetings, General Casey stuck to his approach, and said that he only needed one or two additional brigades, which might only be used for several months to hold cleared neighborhoods in Baghdad until Iraqi troops were ready to take over. On the flight home, Mr. Gates and his aides discussed what to say in his report to Mr. Bush. Mr. Hannah, Mr. Cheney’s aide, who was also on the trip, questioned whether two brigades would be just enough to fail. He asked whether the Pentagon should be proposing more.

Mr. Gates said it was difficult to get Mr. Maliki to accept that much. The defense secretary later reported to Mr. Bush that the commander wanted no more than two brigades, which would be stationed on each side of the Tigris River in Baghdad.

A Dec. 28 National Security Council meeting had been arranged at Mr. Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Tex. General Keane was concerned that General Pace might ask only for the two brigades recommended by General Casey, with three more held in reserve. General Keane called Mr. Hannah and said that General Pace should be asked if he thought such a small deployment would be decisive. That meeting confirmed the need to send more troops to Anbar Province and all but affirmed the plan to send five more brigades to Baghdad.

General Petraeus’s views were also influential. He was being considered to replace General Casey and wanted as many forces as he could get, to pursue a strategy that, like General Odierno’s, would give priority to protecting Iraqi civilians and move American forces out of large bases. The tussle over the number of forces to be sent went down to the wire. As White House officials began to work on Mr. Bush’s Jan. 10 speech announcing the increase, one draft had Mr. Bush saying he would send “up to five” combat brigades. Aides at the National Security Council took the issue to Mr. Bush, who made the commitment explicit. “I’ve committed more than 20,000 additional troops to Iraq,” Mr. Bush said in his televised address. “The vast majority of them — five brigades — will be deployed to Baghdad.”

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How to Leave a Stable Iraq
Building on Progress
By Stephen Biddle, Michael E. O'Hanlon, and Kenneth M. Pollack
From Foreign Affairs , September/October 2008

Summary: The situation in Iraq is improving. With the right strategy, the United States will eventually be able to draw down troops without sacrificing stability.
Stephen Biddle is a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Michael E. O'Hanlon and Kenneth M. Pollack are Senior Fellows at the Brookings Institution. This article is based in part on a research trip made to Iraq in May-June 2008 and written as part of the joint Saban Center at Brookings-Council on Foreign Relations project on U.S. policy toward the Middle East.

Listen to this essay on CFR.org

The Iraq war has become one of the most polarizing issues in American politics. Most Democrats, including Senator Barack Obama (D-Ill.), want large, early troop cuts; most Republicans, including Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), want U.S. troops to stay until Iraq's stability is guaranteed. Years of bad news from the front have hardened these divisions along partisan lines and embittered many on both sides. Today, however, there is reason to believe that the debate over Iraq can change. A series of positive developments in the past year and a half offers hope that the desire of so many Americans to bring the troops home can be fulfilled without leaving Iraq in chaos. The right approach, in other words, can partly square Obama's goal of redeploying large numbers of U.S. forces sooner rather than later with McCain's goal of ensuring stability in Iraq.

If the prognosis in Iraq were hopelessly grim, it might make sense for the United States to threaten withdrawal, hold its breath, and hope for the best. But the prognosis is now much more promising than it has been in years, making a threat of withdrawal far from necessary. With a degree of patience, the United States can build on a pattern of positive change in Iraq that offers it a chance to draw down troops soon without giving up hope for sustained stability.

The last 18 months have brought major changes in the underlying strategic calculus facing Iraq's main combatants -- undermining the Sunni insurgency, weakening the Shiite militias, severely degrading al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), strengthening the Iraqi security forces (ISF), and creating new, more positive political dynamics and incentives. But these developments have also brought new, if less acute, challenges to the fore -- demanding corresponding changes in U.S. and Iraqi strategy. Simply staying the course will not work under the new conditions in Iraq.

Both to deal with the new problems and to guard against any revival of the old ones, any further troop drawdowns, now that the "surge" is over, should be modest until after Iraq gets through two big rounds of elections -- in late 2008 at the provincial level and in late 2009 at the national level -- which have the potential either to reinforce important gains or to reopen old wounds. But starting in 2010, if current trends continue, the United States may be able to start cutting back its troop presence substantially, possibly even halving the total U.S. commitment by sometime in 2011, without running excessive risks with the stability of Iraq and the wider Persian Gulf region.


Most Americans have a mental image of Iraq that is defined by the chaos of 2006. But Iraq today is a very different place than it was two years ago. Overall violence is down at least 80 percent since the surge began, and ethno-sectarian violence -- the kind that seemed to be sucking Iraq into all-out civil war in 2006 -- is down by over 90 percent. Through June, the number of violent civilian deaths has averaged about 700 a month in 2008, a lower rate than in any previous year of the war (with the possible exception of 2003). U.S. military deaths in Iraq have dropped from about 70 a month in early 2007 to about 25 a month now, and the death rate for the ISF has fallen by half, from 200 a month to about 100. Although refugees and internally displaced people are not yet returning home in large numbers, so few Iraqis are now being evicted that the net displacement rate is about zero.

Meanwhile, the three main culprits in the ethno-sectarian violence of 2006 have stood down and agreed to cease-fires or been crippled by military defeat. Sunni insurgents overwhelmingly switched sides over the course of 2007, signing on to cease-fires with the Iraqi state mostly through the Sons of Iraq program, which now includes over 100,000 participants, who provide local security in exchange for legitimacy and financial support. The Shiite militias, especially Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army (also know as Jaish al-Mahdi, or JAM), have seen their position undermined by a combination of Sunni realignment, U.S. and Iraqi military pressure, the increasing independence of splinter and rogue groups, and a backlash against their own parasitic exploitation of the civilians they were ostensibly defending. And the most violent actors -- Iraq's extreme chauvinist Sunni groups and AQI -- have been driven from most of western and central Iraq and are losing their remaining urban havens in the provinces of Diyala, Nineveh, and Salah ad Din thanks to a series of offensives by U.S. and Iraqi forces. AQI will surely continue to be able to precipitate occasional incidents of terrorist violence from these hideouts, but its ability to foment large-scale low-intensity warfare is now hugely diminished.

This remarkable change in Iraq's security situation results from the interaction of AQI's errors, the surge in U.S. troop levels, the growing capacities of the ISF, and the downstream consequences of all of this for the Shiite militias. AQI's first big mistake was bombing the Shiite Askariya shrine in Samarra in February 2006. The attack drew the Shiite militias (many of which had been merely defensive) into the civil war in force and on the offensive, and so began the battle of Baghdad -- a yearlong wave of sectarian violence pitting Sunni insurgents and their AQI allies against JAM and its allies. At the time, Americans saw this wave of bloodshed as a disaster, and in terms of human life it clearly was. But it enabled a later wave of cease-fires by fundamentally changing the Sunnis' strategic calculus. The battle of Baghdad gave the Sunnis a clear view of what an all-out war would really mean, and they did not like what they saw. With U.S. forces playing no decisive role, the Shiite militias overwhelmed the Sunni combatants in neighborhood after neighborhood. By goading the Shiite militias into open warfare, AQI had triggered a head-to-head fight in which the Sunnis were decisively beaten by the Shiite forces they had assumed they could dominate.

AQI's second mistake was alienating its Sunni allies. AQI treated Sunnis it judged insufficiently devout or committed with unspeakable brutality and appropriated Sunni smuggling networks in Anbar Province for its own use, leaving tribal sheiks impoverished. Once the battle of Baghdad had demonstrated to the Sunnis that AQI could offer no real protection against the Shiites, these costs no longer seemed worth it. By late 2006, the Sunnis had realized that they faced defeat unless they found new allies -- and they turned to the United States while they still could.

The surge, and especially its new emphasis on the provision of direct population security by U.S. forces, enabled the Sunnis to survive this realignment in the face of AQI's inevitable counterattacks. In Anbar, U.S. firepower, combined with a persistent troop presence and Sunni knowledge of whom and where to strike, essentially expelled AQI from the province. News of this "Anbar model" spread rapidly among disaffected Sunnis elsewhere. In just a few months, the result was a large-scale stand-down of the Sunni insurgency and the decimation of AQI throughout western and central Iraq.

Cease-fires with Sunnis in turn facilitated cease-fires with key Shiite militias. Sadr's JAM had originally arisen to defend Shiite civilians from Sunni violence. But as that violence waned and resentment of JAM militia thugs (many of whom seemed mostly concerned with extorting personal profit) grew, Shiite support for JAM plummeted -- especially since the U.S. military buildup in Baghdad and the cease-fires with the Sunnis gave the United States enough troop strength to offer the Shiites security without gangsterism. Sadr, his popularity declining and his control over his own fighters increasingly tenuous, chose to stand down rather than confront the strengthened U.S. force.

The net result of all this was a profound change in the underlying strategic calculus in Iraq -- setting off a virtuous cycle in which decreasing sectarian violence weakens the hand of prospective sectarian warriors, which helps further reduce violence. From 2003 to 2006, the self-interest of the key internal actors lay in warfare. By the middle of 2007, the key players saw their interests as best served by peace.

It is worth noting that separation resulting from sectarian cleansing was not the chief cause of the reduction in violence, as some have claimed. Much of Iraq remains intermingled but increasingly peaceful. And whereas a cleansing argument implies that casualties should have gone down in Baghdad, for example, as mixed neighborhoods were cleansed, casualties actually went up consistently during the sectarian warfare of 2006. Cleansing may have reduced the violence somewhat in some places, but it was not the main cause.


As the violence declined, two big changes in the Iraqi state took place -- one military, one political. On the military side, the ISF have grown much more capable than they were in 2006. There are now some 559,000 security personnel, with about 230,000 in the Iraqi army alone, and those ranks are growing by at least 100,000 new soldiers and police a year. Some 55 percent of the units rank in the top two tiers of readiness, according to U.S. assessment methods, which have been improved to include evaluations of actual battlefield performance. (Even these units, however, still need significant coalition help in some areas, particularly for more complex operations.)

The size and competence of these Iraqi forces have allowed U.S. commanders to maintain population security even as U.S. troop strength has declined significantly since the surge. With more troops to cover the battlefield, whole Iraqi battalions can be pulled off the battlefield temporarily for training, further increasing their capabilities. At the same time, the United States has greatly expanded its advisory effort. The typical Iraqi division now has over 100 U.S. Army and Marine advisers, who stay with it even in battle, and Iraqi units are often teamed up with U.S. units of comparable or smaller size. The greater availability of troops enables many of these teams to begin deployments in quiet sectors, building both skills and working relationships before being sent to high-threat areas.

Just as important as the ISF's size and technical proficiency are the major changes that have taken place in the ISF's politics and leadership. Sectarian, corrupt, incompetent, and turncoat officers have been removed. Aggressive recruitment and new amnesty and de-Baathification ordinances have led to increases in both the number of Sunnis, especially in the officer corps, and the number of people with prior military experience in the forces. Now, about 80 percent of the Iraqi army's officers and 50 percent of its rank and file are veterans of Saddam Hussein's military, and one of the most capable units in the Iraqi army, the First Brigade of the First Infantry Division, is 60 percent Sunni.

The cooling of Iraq's underlying sectarian tensions has interacted synergistically with these efforts. In an ongoing ethno-sectarian war, sectarian officers can be purged, but their replacements will face the same pressures, making real change difficult. With ethno-sectarian violence in remission, the replacements for purged sectarians are now much better able to resist militia pressure or political interference. There are still problematic elements in the ISF, and a renewal of ethno-sectarian violence would severely test allegiances. But declining ethno-sectarian violence enables sectarianism to be policed more quickly, consistently, and harshly than in the past. (A U.S. Special Forces officer who served as an advisory-team commander in 2007 and 2008 noted that collaboration with one of the militant sectarian groups was one of the few offenses that typically resulted in an officer's dismissal or imprisonment.) The net result has been important progress, which has been reflected in improved public perception of the ISF: the percentage of Iraqis who did not believe that the Iraqi army was sectarian, according to polling conducted by the U.S.-led coalition, jumped from 39 percent in June 2007 to 54 percent in June 2008.

The Iraqi National Police provides another critical example of this progress. As recently as the fall of 2006, the national police force was a disaster; a commission led by retired Marine General James Jones went so far as to recommend its dissolution. It was infested with Shiite militias as well as every variety of coward and criminal, and police units often acted as anti-Sunni hit squads. But a new commander, Major General Hussein al-Wadi, has turned the force around. He fired both division commanders, all eight brigade commanders, and 18 of 27 battalion commanders. He instituted new vetting and screening measures, enrolled every member of his forces in the massive biometric data system, recruited Sunnis and Kurds into the force, and retrained every police formation. Today, the national police officer corps has roughly equal numbers of Sunnis and Shiites, and its rank and file is 25 percent Sunni -- higher than the Sunnis' share of the overall population. Police units are now capable of supporting army units in combat zones, and popular trust in the police is growing. According to coalition polling, the percentage of Iraqis who believed that the Iraqi police were sectarian fell from 64 percent in June 2007 to 52 percent a year later, and the percentage who believed they were corrupt fell from 63 percent to 50 percent.

Despite such steps, the Iraqis are not yet able to stand on their own. They remain dependent on U.S. and British troops to assist with planning and provide logistical and fire support. (The "tooth-to-tail ratio" for the Iraqi army -- the ratio of combat to support troops -- is 75-25, the reverse of what it is for the U.S. Army.) Properly advised and partnered Iraqi formations perform far better than units without such support. In the offensive against JAM in Basra this past spring, for instance, the First Brigade and the 26th Brigade, which had long fought with U.S. marines and were deployed with Marine advisers, performed well, whereas the brigades without U.S. advisers and partners did poorly, with one, the new 52nd Brigade, effectively collapsing in combat. The Basra campaign would have ended in disaster if not for support from coalition firepower and the arrival of ISF units with U.S. military- and police-training teams. In short, the ISF have improved to the point where they have become a powerful partner to U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq, but they will require outside support for at least some time to come.


Iraqi politics are changing as well. Tensions, mistrust, and competitive pressures remain severe. But thanks to reduced violence, diminished sectarian warfare, weakened militias, and the prospect of upcoming elections for which Sunnis and others who boycotted the last round are expected to turn out in force, the old patterns of Iraqi political life are giving way to new ones. This moment of change brings risk and uncertainty, but those old patterns were so clearly dysfunctional that this transition offers an important opportunity.

During the years of severe ethno-sectarian violence, the three most influential political entities in Iraq -- the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, the Sadrist movement, and the Fadhila Party, all three of which are Shiite -- owed their influence to their powerful militias, which could provide protection to those who needed it and intimidate those who did not. But over the past 18 months, these militias have been significantly weakened. The Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq's Badr Corps and Fadhila's militia have been integrating into the ISF for years. Today, they have largely vanished as independent militias using violence to advance their own political agendas and undermine central government rule. Meanwhile, JAM cadres, increasingly rejected by the Shiite population, which has come to see them more and more as members of predatory criminal gangs rather than as a necessary defense against Sunni attacks, have been routed on the battlefield or driven underground or into Iran. Communities once dependent on JAM now welcome ISF units as sources of law and order.

Sadr himself remains a popular figure among Iraq's downtrodden Shiite communities, if only because of his family ties and perceived nationalism. But he appears increasingly out of step with his erstwhile constituents. His long sojourn in Iran has removed him from day-to-day management of his movement and weakened his nationalist credentials. Sadr's calls for protests against the government now draw only a few thousand people out onto the streets, in contrast to the massive crowds he could bring out in the past. JAM cadres are increasingly frustrated with Sadr's lack of leadership. And U.S. officials report that more and more Sadrist officials have begun meeting with them in defiance of Sadr's orders. The Sadrist movement may be able to regroup -- especially if the government fails to provide services and jobs, which JAM has sought to offer its supporters -- but it is much weaker than it once was.

For their part, the Sunnis seem not only willing but also determined to participate in the government of Iraq, in ways they have not up to now. Most Sunni leaders have concluded that boycotting the 2005 elections was a mistake, which ended up ceding to the worst of the Shiite militias complete control of the central government and many provincial governments. Now, they are determined to participate: in the 2008 provincial elections in order to regain control over the governments of their provinces, and in the 2009 parliamentary elections in the hope of either taking part in a new government or at least preventing their rivals from depriving them of their fair share of Iraq's riches (now flowing from Baghdad to the provinces much more than before but still not enough). In many places, Sunni tribal leaders will try to supplant incumbents from existing Sunni political movements, many of whom are not particularly popular.

Now that the Iraqi people are rejecting the militias, the parties that had long served as façades for them are scrambling to be seen as helping to improve the government's capacity to deliver security and essential services, in the hope that voters will forget how badly the parties hindered that process before 2007. (Most of the established political parties are afraid of losing big in the coming elections, as voters turn to different leaders in an attempt to spur change.) The result has been a series of important political compromises among Iraq's senior leaders: in December 2007 and February 2008, they passed a budget law, a new de-Baathification law, an amnesty for former insurgents, a pensions law, and a provincial powers act that is an important part of an ongoing decentralization process.

Together, all of these developments raise the potential of creating a new and better political order in Iraq. For now, there is still more potential than realization. Legislative progress on reconciliation continues to be slow, factional and sectarian differences remain divisive, and there is still no new political alignment or movement with the power to bridge these divides. Moreover, elections have had a very mixed track record in Iraq: as in many emerging democracies, electoral incentives can lead to instability as well as progress. But recent changes in Iraq's underlying military and political dynamics have at least broken the pattern of dysfunctional politics that has paralyzed Iraq in recent years. And this creates an opening that, if the Iraqis and the Americans can exploit it, could lead to a very different pattern -- one of positive political development and compromise.

Some argue that to do this, the United States must withdraw, or threaten to withdraw, its troops. They believe this would force Iraqi leaders to put their differences aside and reach a grand compromise on reconciliation, because Iraqis would need to solve their own problems either without a U.S. military crutch or in order to preserve a U.S. presence as a reward for reconciliation. There is some merit to this logic. It is true that the presence of U.S. forces reduces the stakes for Iraqi politicians, since it limits violence. And if Iraq faced chaos otherwise, a threat of withdrawal would certainly be worth trying. But withdrawal is a risky gambit. And progress is now being made without it: violence is down dramatically, and political change, although slow, is under way. Threatening withdrawal might speed this progress, but today it seems more likely to derail it instead.

Reconciliation will require all the major Iraqi factions to accept painful compromises simultaneously. If any major party holds out and decides to fight rather than accept risky sacrifices for the larger good, then its rivals will find it very hard to hold their own followers to the terms of a cease-fire -- likely plunging Iraq back into open warfare. If reconciliation can be done slowly, via small steps, then each stage of compromise is likely to be tolerable, with the risk of one holdout party exploiting the others kept to a manageable level. In contrast, if reconciliation must be done quickly, with a grand bargain rapidly negotiated in the face of an imminent U.S. withdrawal, the necessary compromises will be great -- making them extremely risky for all parties. In a factionalized, poorly institutionalized, immature political system such as Iraq's, many parties would doubt their rivals' motives and could refuse to make such large and risky compromises. The Iraqis, out of fear for their own safety, might well respond to a threatened U.S. withdrawal by preparing for renewed warfare. Rather than persuading the Iraqis to accept huge risks together, a threat of withdrawal would more likely produce the opposite effect.

Leverage to encourage compromise is important, as advocates of withdrawal argue, and U.S. policy has up to now erred in rejecting conditionality for U.S. aid and cooperation. But threatening withdrawal is hardly the only or the best way of gaining such leverage. Any element of U.S. policy can be made conditional -- economic assistance, military aid, the U.S. position in negotiations over the legal status of U.S. forces -- by offering benefits only in exchange for Iraqi cooperation. Withdrawal is the biggest potential threat that Washington can issue, but it is also a blunt instrument with great potential to damage both parties' interests. In an environment of increasing stability, the United States can now hope to succeed with subtler methods.


If the United States and its coalition partners are to keep Iraq moving toward stability, they must still overcome a range of new challenges. These problems promise to be generally less daunting than those faced at the beginning of 2007, but they could still plunge Iraq back into civil war. Iraq may no longer be a failed state, but it is certainly, as Emma Sky, chief political adviser to the U.S. military leadership in Iraq, puts it, a "fragile state," one that must become much stronger if it is to stand on its own and not fall back into chaos and war. Achieving this will require tackling a number of second-order issues, which are growing in visibility as the first-order problems of rampant sectarian and insurgent violence abate. There are a great many such second-order problems, but it is worth highlighting some of the most important.

First, there is the challenge of integrating the Sons of Iraq into the ISF and the Iraqi government. The stand-down of the Sunni insurgency under the Sons of Iraq program has been a critical element in the reduction in violence. The program has not "armed the Sunnis" for renewed warfare, as American critics have often claimed -- the Sons of Iraq hardly lacked weapons when they were fighting as insurgents, and they have received none from the United States. The real problem is different. Most Sons of Iraq groups want to be integrated into the government security forces -- a move they see as the best guarantee that a Shiite regime will not use the ISF to tyrannize them. But Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government has been dragging its feet, out of fear of empowering Sunni rivals. Some mix of security-sector and civilian employment must be found for the Sons of Iraq to satisfy their economic needs -- and their security concerns vis-à-vis Iraq's Shiite majority. As with other needed intersectarian compromises in Iraq, this will require hard bargaining. But the increasing stability, along with the security that the improving ISF give to the Maliki regime, offers a reason to believe that such bargaining can eventually succeed if the United States stands firm.

The Sons of Iraq system is also highly decentralized, with over 200 separate groups under contract. Many are wary and distrustful of rivals, as are most Iraqis. Violations of cease-fire terms and contract provisions are inevitable with so many actors and so much tension; active enforcement of the terms is therefore essential to keep the peace. This is typical of the early years of negotiated settlements to civil wars, which commonly require outside peacekeepers to stabilize cease-fires. Until the Sunnis fully trust the ISF, this role will largely fall to the U.S. military -- and, in fact, many U.S. brigades already spend much of their time involved in peacekeeping duties to enforce the terms of Sons of Iraq contracts. This cease-fire policing function is likely to be an increasingly important mission for U.S. forces in Iraq.

Returning refugees and internally displaced people are another important second-order problem. The first-order problem of the civil war created about four million refugees and internally displaced people. Some of them are now starting to return home, and many more can be expected to follow if security continues to improve. The returnees often have neither jobs nor homes to return to. Although trying to put every family back in its original home would be simply impossible -- in many cases, the homes of returning refugees or displaced people are occupied by others whose homes were destroyed -- there need to be large-scale resettlement programs for the displaced. One solution would be a government voucher program to help people build new houses, perhaps in their original provinces but not necessarily their original cities or neighborhoods. Iraq should fund most of any such program, but American and international advisers can help design the program -- and then help in the critical tasks of implementing it fairly across sectarian lines and protecting the populations trying to relocate. This approach would have the added virtue of sparking a construction boom and thereby helping reduce unemployment (one of Iraq's chief economic problems). Without such measures, considerable violence -- both by and against the returnees -- could ensue, perhaps resurrecting the militias as the champions of the dispossessed.

The Iraqi central government's administrative capacity and the country's economic progress still lag far behind the gains in security, and there is still much to be done before Iraq has a mature political system and a productive economy capable of meeting the Iraqi people's basic needs. The Iraqi government has proved unable to spend more than a modest fraction of its own revenue, leaving the Iraqis largely unable to benefit from record-high oil prices. Unemployment is between 30 and 40 percent, and there has been little documented progress in providing health care, education, sanitation, clean water, or most other services. Money and goods are finally moving across the country, but they are moving very slowly. Without an electronic banking system, it is difficult to transfer funds from the central government to the provinces, where they can be more effectively spent.

Credible public administration is important for sustaining improved security. Some recent policy changes are steps in the right direction. As part of the surge strategy, the United States increased its support to Iraq's provincial governments, which are better able than the central government to develop the capacity to deliver essential services. U.S. civilian and military personnel, most deployed in new Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) and Embedded Provincial Reconstruction Teams (EPRTs), have fanned out into the countryside to help Iraqi officials build local and provincial governance structures and utilities. Training programs for civil servants from provincial governments were established in Baghdad and Erbil to complement the work of the teams in the field. Likewise, the United States' economic-assistance strategy has shifted from an emphasis on massive U.S.-directed and U.S.-designed infrastructure programs to more effective local initiatives, such as microloans administered by the PRTs and the EPRTs (which are now nearly fully staffed).

There are signs that things are starting to improve on the economic front. U.S., Iraqi, British, and UN officials all say that there are more markets opening up, more businesses starting or reopening, and more traffic on the streets than in the past few years. In an area of Iraq south of Baghdad once so violent that it was known as "the Triangle of Death," 255 small businesses were opened in the first five months of 2008. Still, on economic issues, the glass remains less than half full, and the delivery of essential government services remains an important challenge.

A final second-order problem worth noting is the thorny issue of Kirkuk. Preventing Kirkuk from becoming a flashpoint will require compromises on a range of difficult issues. The city and its environs, once heavily Kurdish, were "Arabized" by Saddam in an effort to weaken the Kurdish hold on Iraq's northern oil-producing region. Many Kurds were displaced by the influx of Arabs, and now, in much of the city, two different families claim every house. A solution might involve giving most Kurds their homes back or creating a voucher system to enable them to build new ones. Ensuring that all of Iraq's major groups are comfortable with a settlement on oil-revenue sharing and oil exploration will also be critical for Kirkuk. A fair resolution on oil requires making future oil wealth a national asset to be shared equally by all Iraqis. Resolving the problem of Kirkuk is likely to take considerable time, especially since any rapid resolution might produce considerable bloodshed. But the good news is that the Kurdish leadership recognizes the difficulties inherent in amicably resolving the Kirkuk problem and has so far supported the UN process established to handle it.


As Iraq moves toward stability, other problems will start to emerge. Iraq risks becoming an ordinary Arab state -- hardly a rosy prospect given the horrendous political and economic record of other Arab states in the region over the past 60 years. As the United States and its partners work on such basic challenges as resettling refugees and improving government capacity, they must also try to prevent the fragile new Iraq from falling prey to the kinds of problems that have befallen so many other Arab states.

The most pressing risk is that the much-improved ISF, an increasingly competent and self-confident institution in a state of otherwise weak institutions, could turn to praetorianism. Even a failed coup attempt could have serious consequences, rekindling sectarian rivalries and causing the ISF themselves to fragment along sectarian lines. The United States' continued military presence can be an important deterrent in this regard; a rapid U.S. withdrawal could greatly increase the risk of a coup.

It is also possible that a clique of politicians aligned with the security services could take over the government from within and then proceed to hoard its vast energy wealth and parcel out the rest of the state to organized crime. The ties between increasingly prevalent organized crime and many Iraqi political leaders, the stronger ISF at their disposal, and Iraq's oil wealth make this a very real danger. Still another possibility would be Iraq's falling into a "Palestinian model," in which the central government fails to provide essential services and steals the country's wealth. That could create fertile ground for Hamas-like militias to provide many services (as JAM was attempting to do before the ISF displaced it).

None of these outcomes would bring sustainable stability to Iraq, and all would risk reigniting the civil war. The second-order problems thus demand increasing attention as the first-order problem of ethno-sectarian violence ebbs.

The United States must also contend with Iran's role. The war in Iraq is ultimately about Iraq and the Iraqis, but Iranian money, weapons, and training for Iraqi militias and guerrillas are clearly exacerbating Iraq's internal problems. How committed Iran is to this policy of malign interference, however, is unclear. The Iranian leadership is not entirely of one mind regarding its goals or strategies in Iraq, and the events of the past year and a half (particularly the weakening of the Shiite militias) appear to have shattered whatever consensus it once had. Iran has also done some things that could be beneficial -- such as trying to prevent fighting among the Shiite militias -- and the fact that it has done them to serve its own interests should not blind the United States to Iran's potential to be helpful in some regards.

Handling Iran will require a joint U.S.-Iraqi effort to engage Iran in a dialogue, in the hope of making Tehran more of a partner in the reconstruction effort. The Iranians need to be encouraged to do more of what is helpful and less of what is unhelpful, and the best route to that is to stop trying to exclude them from the process altogether. For instance, the U.S. and Iraqi governments should offer the Iranians a permanent liaison presence in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities, allowing them to be briefed and to offer advice on developments relevant to their interests. Better still would be to act where possible in ways that take Iran's advice into account to reassure Tehran that it can secure its most basic interests without having to fight for them. Even a failed attempt at dialogue would underscore to the Iraqis that Iran is acting nefariously in their country -- making the Iraqis more tolerant of decisive government action against Iranian-sponsored militias and encouraging Iraqi, rather than U.S., action against Iranian arms smuggling and other types of interference.


For now, U.S. troops are playing an important role in sustaining the fragile hope and security in Iraq. But current troop levels cannot be maintained forever. How soon and how deep can a drawdown be without undermining the prospects for stability?

Exact projections of troop requirements are difficult to make, but current trends suggest that the United States should be able to cut its presence in Iraq substantially -- perhaps by half -- over the course of 2010 and 2011. Doing so would be contingent on making further progress against the insurgency, keeping the peace during the upcoming provincial and parliamentary elections, and continuing to assist the Iraqis as they work toward healing their sectarian divisions. A destabilizing election, a renewal of sectarian violence sparked by badly handed refugee returns or poor resolution of the Kirkuk dispute, or more destabilizing activity by Iran would change this timing. Any schedule for withdrawal will be subject to the inherent uncertainty of a conflict as complex as the one in Iraq.

Still, one possible model if current trends continue is provided by the recent developments in Anbar Province, which has famously gone from being the worst area of the country in 2006 to nearly its best today. In 2007, the United States had 15 maneuver battalions in the province; today it has only six. Now, U.S. marines participate in less than half of all patrols, and their aim is to drop that down to only 25 percent soon. Several hundred marines remain to advise the two Iraqi army divisions in Anbar, and a sizable number of Americans are working with the Iraqi police there. They will remain necessary for some time, as will further U.S. support of efforts to patrol Anbar's border with Syria to keep out foreign terrorists (who continue to enter Iraq at the rate of about 30 a month, down by two-thirds from earlier estimates but still a worrying figure). The United States will also have to continue to provide key "combat enablers" -- aerial surveillance and air, artillery, and armor support -- to Iraqi forces in battle. But the ISF are now providing most of the infantry and policing manpower in Anbar themselves, and U.S. forces there will soon be less than half the size they were in 2007, without any increase in violence or instability.

Another potential insight, despite the imperfect analogy, comes from the U.S. experience in Bosnia and Kosovo. A key to stability in the Balkans has been the continued presence of outside peacekeepers to enforce the deals that ended the fighting -- much like U.S. forces are now doing in Iraq (but were not before). Within four years of the cease-fires in Bosnia and Kosovo, peacekeeping forces in both places had been reduced by about half without causing any resumption of violence. And over the succeeding years, the foreign troop presence fell even further, with a token force of less than ten percent of its original strength remaining in Bosnia today.

Drawdowns on this scale in Iraq cannot be rushed without serious risk. For now, a substantial U.S. presence is essential to stabilize a system of local cease-fires and maintain an environment in which gradual compromise can proceed without gambling on a single grand bargain among wary rivals in Baghdad. This is not to say that today's troop count can or should be maintained until 2010 -- modest near-term withdrawals to below the pre-surge levels will be necessary to establish a sustainable posture. The 130,000 troops and 15 brigades of the pre-2007 force may be too large to maintain into 2009 without unacceptable damage to the U.S. Army and the Marine Corps. But if the United States can maintain a substantial force in Iraq through the critical period of the next two to three years, there is now a credible basis for believing that major drawdowns after that can be enabled by success rather than mandated by failure.

Of course, much could still go wrong. And if an electoral crisis or some other event returns Iraq to civil war, it would be very hard to justify another troop surge to try to stabilize Iraq. Containment -- withdrawing all U.S. troops while working to prevent the chaos in Iraq from spilling over to the rest of the region -- would then become the United States' only realistic option.

But today, there is a real chance that U.S. persistence in the short term can secure a stable Iraq and enable major withdrawals in 2010 and 2011 without undermining that stability. The American people -- to say nothing of the servicemen and servicewomen who are fighting -- have every right to be tired of this war and to question whether it should have ever been fought. But understandable frustration with past mistakes, sorrow over lives lost, anger at resources wasted, and fatigue with a war that has at times seemed endless must not blind Americans to the major change of the last 18 months. The developments of 2007 and 2008 have created new possibilities. If the United States is willing to seize them, it could yet emerge from Mesopotamia with something that may still fall well short of Eden on the Euphrates but that prevents the horrors of all-out civil war, avoids the danger of a wider war, and yields a stability that endures as Americans come home.

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