After years of facing relatively few obstacles to his Iraq policies from the legislative branch, President George W. Bush now confronts dual resolutions (WashPost) from both chambers of Congress demanding an end to combat operations there sometime next year. The Senate's vote to set a March 31, 2008 deadline for ending U.S. combat operations in Iraq, passed by a slim 50-48 margin, may be vetoed by the president. But it definitively ends a period beginning with a vote in 2002 to grant Bush broad warmaking powers in which Congress has deferred to the executive on such issues.
The vote will fuel a new debate over whether Congress has finally owned up to its obligations (WashTimes) or is vastly overreaching itself (USA Today). A more cynical view from Los Angeles Times columnist Ronald Brownstein is that politics, and not principle, drives both sides of the debate. CFR Senior Fellow Peter Beinert argues in TIME that the Democrats are right, both in the policy sense and politically, to force this debate. This Council Special Report by CFR Senior Fellow Steven Simon urged a similar course, though only after the latest increase in U.S. troops in Iraq was given time to have effect.
The president and his mostly Republican supporters argue the latest policy change in Iraq—the "surge" of over 20,000 new U.S. troops into the country—has not had time to prove itself. Baghdad’s death rate is down, according to an update from Kenneth Katzman of the Congressional Research Service, but bombings in “belts” around the capital and area provinces like Diyalah are up. U.S. casualties are down in February, but a number of well-coordinated suicide attacks, particularly one against Shiite pilgrims en route to Karbala, suggest that sectarian violence remains. “There is a real glimmer of hope, but no proof of progress” (NYT), write the Brookings Institution’s Jason Campbell and Michael O’Hanlon. General David Patraeus also sounded optimistic (BBC) and said by early summer a clearer picture of the strategy’s effectiveness should emerge. The surge is not even half-complete, he added. Only ten thousand out of an expected twenty-five thousand additional American soldiers have been deployed.
The surge also consists of roughly thirty joint U.S.-Iraqi security bases scattered throughout Baghdad to allow U.S. and Iraqi forces greater round-the-clock access to insecure neighborhoods, writes Monte Morin in Stars & Stripes. Markets in the capital are closed to daytime vehicle traffic. The result has been a drop in civilian casualties (WashPost), Pentagon officials say. Previously deserted neighborhoods, such as the Karada district in eastern Baghdad, have returned to life. Shiite slums like Sadr City have been temporarily cleared of militias. And the Shiite Mahdi Army, while not exactly neutered, has been quieter as of late and lying low. To try to boost nonmilitary efforts to stabilize Iraq, policymakers from Iraq and its six neighbors recently released the "Marmara Declaration" (PDF) outlining 36 further steps. Among them was a reform of de-Baathification laws, which the declaration said was “essential to national reconciliation, as well as to gaining political support from Sunni Arab states.” Iraq’s prime minister and president this week followed up by approving a draft law allowing members of Saddam’s former ruling Baath party, mostly Sunnis, to return to public sector jobs. But the measure was drawing fire (Reuters) Tuesday from an independent Iraqi panel that oversaw the purge of Baathist officials.
While the surge has produced some modicum of security, it has not tempered Iraqis’ views of the American occupation. An ABC News poll finds that more than half of Iraq’s population, as opposed to 17 percent in 2004, now views violence against Americans (AP) as acceptable. Just 43 percent of Iraqis favor a pluralist form of democracy (USAToday)—down from 57 percent before the December 2005 elections.
Confidence in the war has also slipped stateside. Just 35 percent of Americans now support the president’s course in the war, according to a new CNN poll. Yet strangely, some pundits on both sides of the political spectrum now say the surge should be given a chance. “The odds are against it,” writes John Farmer of the Star-Ledger. “But if it does work … something of value might yet be salvaged from a monumental American mistake, not a democracy for sure but at least a reasonably stable country free of the clutches of Iraq or al-Qaeda.” Michael Boyle of the Guardian says the surge’s results have been “mixed at best” but admits “the number of bullet-ridden bodies scattered around Baghdad, perhaps the most regular and chilling reminder of the brutality of this war, has also dropped significantly.”