Commentary: It's not over, over there

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 20, 2007 

In a remarkable and rare display of both caution and good sense, no one in the Bush administration has begun doing victory laps over the good news from Iraq.

Yes, the numbers of American troops and Iraqi civilians dying there have fallen sharply in the past six months. So have the number of roadside bombs going off and suicide car bombs detonating. Anbar province is, at last and at the moment, relatively peaceful.

The Sunni Muslim jihadists of al Qaida in Iraq seem to be either in retreat or on a retreat, licking their wounds and rethinking their strategy. Better yet, radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr's murderous Mahdi Army militia has largely stood down as he ordered it to last August.

In Baghdad, some neighborhoods have cautiously come back to life; open-air markets are again thronged with shoppers who for so long had cowered inside their homes out of fear of death squads and suicide bombers.

A small fraction — 20,000 or so — of the 2 million Iraqis who've fled from the terror across the borders to Syria and Jordan have begun to trickle home. Some forced by Syria's hardening attitude toward Iraqi refugees; others tempted by the good news from home.

All of this is good news; all of this is welcome news.

But everyone from our military commanders in Iraq to Defense Secretary Robert Gates to the White House and its denizens is being very careful to avoid premature celebration, and rightly so. Even Vice President Dick Cheney has avoided making any pronouncements about the insurgents being in their death throes.

It would be easy — and wrong — to claim that the temporary surge of an additional 30,000 American troops is entirely responsible for the scaling back of violence and civil war in Iraq. Beefing up our forces has helped. What's helped even more was a change of American tactics and strategy in Iraq that was four years overdue and coincided with the arrival of Gen. David Petraeus as the new U.S. commander.

But the truth is that much of this reduction in violence is, like the violence itself, entirely homegrown and thus resistant to the analysis and understanding of foreigners.

We don't know why Sadr stood down his murdering militiamen for six months beginning last August or why, this week, he sent signals that he may extend the truce. What we do know is that his militia was, at the height of the killing, responsible for more than 60 percent of American combat deaths in Iraq.

We know that Anbar province almost overnight has ceased to be a killing field for American Marines because the local tribal sheiks had had enough of the jihadists they'd sheltered. When the jihadists began killing the sheikhs themselves and imposing their idea of Islamic law — cutting off the heads of barbers, bootleggers and women not sufficiently subservient — they crossed the line.

It was easy enough for the sheikhs to begin dropping the dime to the American forces on the jihadists.

More important, the sheikhs decided to stop their own Sunni insurgency and stop killing Americans.

They'd balked at participating in the Iraqi central government and army and police, which are almost entirely Shiite. That didn't bode well for the day when the Americans would leave and the night of the Shiite long knives would arrive, so the Sunnis began sending their sons to attempt to join the army and police. When the government turned them away, the sheikhs signed up to fight with the Americans for $300 a month, a rifle and some training.

That model has been applied successfully in once-rebellious towns and communities elsewhere, to the dismay and opposition of the U.S.-backed Shiite central government.

So let's review the bidding. The key decisions that have led to the reduction in the slaughter weren't made by us or by what passes for a national government in Baghdad. They were made by some of the people — both Sunni and Shiite — who were killing American troops just six months ago.

It would appear that all politics are local, and all Iraqi politics are impenetrable, byzantine and beyond the understanding of foreigners.

It also would appear that the prospects that the national government of Iraq will do anything to meet Washington's benchmarks for progress toward national reconciliation — the reason why the troop surge was mounted in the first place — remain slim to none.

So there's reason aplenty for our leaders and commanders to avoid any victory parades, "Mission Accomplished" banners or "last throes" pronouncements and instead wait silently for the next shoe to drop. If only President Bush had known that Iraq was harder than algebra back in 2003, maybe we could have avoided the whole thing.

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