When the top U.S. diplomat and chief commander of U.S. forces in Iraq sat side by side on Capitol Hill six months ago, assurances of a speedy U.S. victory in Iraq were absent. Some important things have changed since then. Overall violence is down dramatically (PDF) since June 2007, according to Pentagon statistics. Analysts—Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution, for instance—also see signs of political reconciliation, and 53 percent of Americans now believe the U.S. effort in Iraq will one day succeed (Pew). And yet, when Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker reappear in front of Congress this week, their message will sound strikingly familiar.
With the U.S. war effort in Iraq in its sixth year, progress on the ground remains mixed. The success of an Iraqi tribal revolt, originally dubbed the “Anbar Awakening,” is widely credited with stabilizing once volatile Sunni regions in central and western Iraq. A U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad tells CFR.org more than 95,000 former insurgents and tribesmen have turned their weapons on al-Qaeda in Iraq; they receive three hundred dollars a month for their services. CFR Senior Fellow Stephen Biddle says that the strategy isn’t perfect. “But given the alternatives,” he says, “stabilization from the bottom up may be the least bad option for U.S. policy in 2008.” Others aren’t so sure. CFR Senior Fellow Steven Simon writes in Foreign Affairs that the Anbar model may have brought short-term successes but has done so by stoking the fires of “tribalism, warlordism, and sectarianism.”
There are other red flags. Recent Shiite-on-Shiite clashes in Basra and the capital underscore the fragile nature of U.S. military gains. The Iraqi Army was reportedly unprepared (NYT) for the resistance of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, according to senior U.S. military commanders. President Bush declared the Iraqi military’s efforts a “defining moment in the history of a free Iraq.” But reports of Iranian intervention in securing a cease-fire have raised doubts about the government’s control of the country (Salon). TIME magazine reports that despite claims from Baghdad and Washington that Sadr’s militia had splintered, his fighters respond to his orders. This could provide an ominous backdrop to testimony from Petraeus and Crocker: Sadr has called on Iraqis to stage nationwide protests April 9 (al-Jazeera), the anniversary of the fall of Baghdad.
To be sure, civil society in Iraq has improved since the last Petraeus-Crocker update in September 2007. The security situation is the improvement most often cited, but Iraq also has improved ties with its neighbors, including Iran (IHT) and Bahrain (WashPost). Politically, Iraq’s parliament passed an on-time budget, approved an amnesty law, and cleared the way for some former members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath party to return to government, one of eighteen benchmarks established by the Bush administration.
But improvements are met with continued suffering. The contents of a brand new National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq, which remains classified but has been described to the New York Times, concludes that security gains remains fragile. For Iraqi civilians the situation is tenuous. The United Nations estimates a total of 2.7 million Iraqis have been displaced within Iraq (PDF) since 2003, the vast majority of them from Baghdad.
Looking past the U.S. troop surge will be the focus of talking points presented by the general and the ambassador. Observers say they expect Petraeus to recommend a pause in troop withdrawals (Reuters) after July, leaving around 140,000 American soldiers in Iraq. Democratic lawmakers want to reframe the political debate (Politico) and focus on how to disengage. As Biddle sees it, the best the United States can do is to change its definition of winning in Iraq. But Terrence K. Kelly, a RAND expert who is a recent Baghdad embassy staffer and former White House official, says “talk of ‘victory’ and similar terms” (PDF) is premature. “We do not know what that means,” Kelly told lawmakers on April 3.