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A Long Road in Iraq

Author: Greg Bruno
Updated: March 20, 2008

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On the eve of the U.S.-led invasion to oust Saddam Hussein, President Bush offered this rationale: “We have no ambition in Iraq, except to remove a threat and restore control of that country to its own people.” But five years later, the U.S. military continues its fight to “restore control,” and so far a divided Iraqi government has been unable to reconcile important economic and political issues. The U.S. public, meanwhile, has gone through a cycle of emotions on Iraq. In March 2003, a poll showed 71 percent of Americans supported going to war (WashPost). An ABC News/Washington Post poll in March 2008 paints a different picture: 63 percent felt the war was not worth fighting. And yet a slight majority of Americans—53 percent—believe the U.S. effort in Iraq will one day succeed (Pew), despite nearly 4,000 dead (PDF) and over 29,000 wounded (PDF) soldiers.

Washington’s day of victory may be far off; American involvement in Iraq is no longer viewed in the short term. Bush warned in his 2003 speech that conflict “could be longer and more difficult that some predict.” Five years later, he expressed a similar sentiment: “There’s still hard work to be done in Iraq. The gains we have made are fragile and reversible.” Analysts today talk of the “long war” (WashPost) on terrorism, and a longer war in Iraq. CFR’s Stephen Biddle writes in The National Interest that the United States will need to maintain a peacekeeping presence in Iraq “for many years” to maintain the fragile truce currently observed by some militant groups.

Many experts believe the next U.S. president will have little choice but to agree. Democratic presidential candidates Senators Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and Barack Obama (D-IL) vow to begin a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq within months after taking office. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), the presumptive GOP nominee, opposes steep troop withdrawals and says Americans should be prepared for a long troop commitment in Iraq to achieve success. (McCain traveled to Iraq on March 16 to visit with Iraqi and American officials). The Pentagon, meanwhile, is pushing for “a brief pause” (NYT) in the reduction of troops on the ground and projects 140,000 U.S. troops will still be in Iraq in July 2008. Washington is also negotiating a status-of-forces agreement with the Iraqi government, a long-term deal spelling out the future of U.S. military cooperation with Baghdad. William M. Arkin, a defense analyst who writes the Early Warning blog for the Washington Post, notes another trend. He says one way for the Pentagon to limit the impact of further force reductions—should the next U.S. president demand them—is to shift mission capabilities to other Persian Gulf states. That’s “already underway,” Arkin writes.

Military analysts acknowledge violence has declined as a result of the additional troops sent to Baghdad in early 2007. A March 2008 Defense Department analysis notes that ethno-sectarian violence is down “nearly 90 percent” (PDF) from June 2007, and coalition and civilians deaths are down 70 percent. Politically, Baghdad also has inched forward, with the passage of an on-time budget in February 2007, and a law allowing some Sunni Baathists to return to government. Yet signs of progress are fraying. On the security side of the ledger, the rapid decline of violence in the first half of 2007 has since leveled out (PDF), and the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq notes while Baghdad is largely stabilized, security has “deteriorated” (PDF) in places like Mosul and Diyala. Politically the story is equally frustrating: Iraqi leaders have passed just four of 18 benchmarks created by Washington.

The bigger question may be how the U.S. mission in Iraq alters Mideast geopolitical dynamics. Jeffrey Goldberg, writing in the Atlantic, argues that a sustained U.S. war could spread instability beyond Iraq’s borders, to Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Pakistan. To limit that possibility, Bradley L. Bowman, a U.S. army major and CFR international affairs fellow, suggests the Pentagon should “resist the temptation” (PDF) to redeploy forces to other Gulf States. “Protecting U.S. interests in the region does not require an obtrusive U.S. military footprint,” Bowman writes in The Washington Quarterly. Yet others say the best way to contain the threat of regional violence five years into war may be to leave Iraq all together. In a co-authored op-ed in the Washington Post, CFR’s Ray Takeyh writes that ending the war could compel neighbor states to “mediate rather than inflame.”

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