U.S. fears of a return to violence in Iraq after the September slaying of the Pentagon's most prominent Sunni Arab ally, Sheikh Abdul-Sattar Abu Risha, have gone unrealized. Weekly attacks (PDF) against coalition forces dropped 55 percent between June and November, military officials say. Michael O'Hanlon, a military analyst with the Brookings Institution, calls the decline in violence "really quite stunning" (FT). CFR Senior Fellow Stephen Biddle, who recently returned from Iraq, says local cease-fires and the recruitment of former combatants to serve as de facto peacekeepers has been "extraordinary and...very surprising."
But security improvements are only part of the story in Iraq. Political gains—another stated aim of President Bush's "surge" of additional combat troops—are harder to spot. A declaration of principles to map out the U.S. long-term presence in Iraq has drawn fire (BBC) from Iraqi opposition groups. An analysis of the agreement by intelligence consultant Stratfor notes the document "implies that U.S. military bases will be established in Iraq" for years to come. Meanwhile, Shiite legislators have expressed anger over a U.S.-backed bill that would make it easier for former Sunnis loyal to Saddam Hussein to rejoin the political process, one of eighteen "benchmark" issues Washington has pushed. A parliamentary debate (AP) on the bill in Baghdad on November 25 ended when lawmakers loyal to anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr began "pounding their fists on their tables in protest." A second political benchmark, the distribution of oil revenue, has also come under protest, complicated by oil deals signed (Oil and Gas Journal) by the semiautonomous Kurdish Regional Government.
In light of Iraq's political fits, U.S. observers are piling on the criticism. Sen. Joseph Biden, a Democratic presidential candidate and head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, says it's "fantasy" (ChiTrib) to call the surge a success based on security improvements alone. Sen. John McCain, a Republican presidential candidate, takes the opposite view. But Juan Cole, a professor of Middle East history at the University of Michigan, argues that "if people are going to talk about 'success,' they have to show a sort of political progress, such that when the cars start circulating again or the blast walls come down, you don't revert to civil war."
Some Iraqi leaders have shown a willingness to foster reconciliation. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's top Shiite cleric, hosted a religious conference in Najaf on November 27 during which he called on Sunni and Shiite Muslims to unite (AP). Al-Sadr, too, has made overtures. In August the cleric ordered his Shiite Mahdi army to put down their weapons for six months, a move many observers say has contributed to the drop in bloodshed. Some have also attributed improved security to a decline in attacks caused by Iranian munitions.
Paradoxically, such cease-fires have improved the security situation to such a degree that U.S. officials are planning to scale back (NYT) their political ambitions in favor of more achievable goals, like passing an Iraqi budget. In Baghdad December 2, Deputy Secretary of State John D. Negroponte urged Iraqi lawmakers to take advantage of the drop in violence to make lasting political progress. Whether the strategy produces results remains to be seen. But at least one segment of the populace sees signs of progress in Iraq absent political victories: the U.S. public. Nearly half of Americans say the U.S. war effort is "going fairly well." It's the most optimistic measure of progress since the summer of 2006.