Two developments mark the latest round of violence in Iraq. First, Iraq’s Shiite death squads appear to have been temporarily neutered, partly as a result of President Bush’s security plan for Baghdad. Many of the militias’ leaders have fled to the south or gone underground. Moqtada al-Sadr, a prominent anti-U.S. cleric, is rumored to be in Iran, something Tehran denies (Arab News) and some scholars dispute. A second development is the growing sophistication of the insurgency’s attacks. Recent examples include an attack (NYT) by foreign jihadis and Sunni militants against a U.S. combat outpost north of Baghdad, and what appears to be a more coordinated campaign to gun down U.S. helicopters. Insurgents have also begun equipping car bombs with chlorine canisters (ChiTrib), which disperse the toxic gas when the bomb explodes.
Large-scale assaults like the one on the U.S. outpost are nothing new but they have grown rarer, suggesting the decentralized nature of the various insurgent factions. Still, car bombs against soft targets like civilians remain the norm. The latest round of bloodshed followed a brief calm, prompting Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to call President Bush’s new security plan a “dazzling success” (NYT). But by Monday, hope gave way to despair after a pair of suicide bombings (AP) in Baghdad left at least sixty dead.
Back on the U.S. front, debate continues to rage in Congress over whether to support President Bush’s latest troop commitment. On February 17, Republicans nixed (ThePolitico.com) a nonbinding resolution that would signal the Senate’s disapproval of the president’s plan. Instead they sought an alternative resolution that guarantees no funding for the war will be cut by Congress. Democrats say the vote, despite falling short, shows that a majority of Congress does not approve of the president’s strategy. Many legislators want to place conditions on appropriations before agreeing to give the White House $100 billion next month to execute the war. Others, including Rep. John Murtha (D-PA), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Defense Appropriations, say U.S. soldiers should be given a year of training before being sent back to Iraq. Meanwhile, Senators Joseph Biden (D-DE) and Carl Levin (D-MI) hope to narrow the mission in Iraq by limiting the president’s authorization given by Congress back in 2002.
Some downplayed the significance of a procedural vote as an empty gesture with no binding authority. William Kristol of the Weekly Standard called it a “slow bleed” strategy that provides no real alternative to the president’s plan. Others accused the Democrats of trying to micromanage things like troop rotations during a time of war. “You're sitting there in Congress. You don't manage wars and how many troops should be in a city, or what neighborhood they should be in. That's the president's job,” said the New York Times’ David Brooks on the NewsHour. Congress “should stick to oversight and not try to dictate tactics,” writes CFR Adjunct Senior Fellow Noah Feldman in the New York Times Magazine. In an interview with CFR.org's Bernard Gwertzman, former Deputy Secretary of State Robert B. Zoellick worries that weariness of the war will make it “hard to sustain a policy without support of the public.”
The debate sets the stage for what promises to be a spirited fight over appropriations. This Backgrounder breaks down the defense budget while another Backgrounder looks at the escalating costs of the Iraq war. Not everyone is convinced the gridlock in Washington over Iraq should continue. Joe Klein of TIME writes “a strong pragmatic argument can be made for not pressing the Iraq case any further right now. Give Bush his supplemental appropriation.” Klein adds that at this point we should “hope for the best in Baghdad” and “revisit these issues in the fall.”