The “surge” has succeeded, we are all told. Iraq is now a much more peaceful place; the government of Nuri al-Maliki is now in good shape, they say, increasingly able to take over the task of providing internal security with its own native forces. But “they”? “They” is primarily those with an interest in pushing the image of a peaceable Iraq today as a way somehow (and finally!) to justify the expenditure of thousands of American lives, hundreds of thousands of Americans wounded, and hundreds of billions of dollars since March of 2003. In other words, “they” is namely the Bush administration, and also the McCain presidential campaign – and the credibility of at least the first of those has been running on empty for quite some time.
No, far better to seek a judgment on the current state of Iraq from experts with a higher quotient of objectivity. One long-standing authority is Juan Cole, professor at the University of Michigan and both Arabic- and Farsi-speaker, mainly through his weblog Informed Comment. He recently offered his own summing-up of where we are now: “The level of violence at this moment in Iraq is similar to what prevailed on average during one of the 20th century’s worst ethnic civil wars [the Lebanese Civil War of 1975-1990]! It is still higher than the casualty rates in Sri Lanka and Kashmir, two of the worst ongoing conflicts in the world.” On the other hand, New York Times correspondent Dexter Filkins has to know something about conditions in Iraq, from where he reported from 2004 to 2006. (He also has a book coming out soon about that, The Forever War.) In a recent e-mail interview (The Progress in Iraq is Remarkable) he asserts that much of the improvement of conditions in Iraq is “astonishing,” that “parts of [the country] are difficult for me recognize,” although “the calm is very fragile.”
A large part of the basis for optimism is the hand-over last Monday of responsibility for the security of Anbar province to the Iraqi government, which Filkins himself reported on for the NYT. This is also covered by Rainer Hermann of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (From sanctuary for terrorists to model province), who adds some telling details. Fallujah, Ramadi: these cities infamous for the spilling of the blood of both natives and American soldiers are Anbar’s main urban centers, and that province’s transformation within a mere two years or so into a region where responsibility for policing and fighting anti-government militants can be turned over to the Iraqi forces themselves does seem miraculous. This was after all the pro-Saddam Sunni stronghold where those who bothered to turn out to vote in October of 2005 on the proposed Iraqi constitution rejected it by 97%, where al-Qaeda in Iraq the next summer proclaimed a “caliphate state.” But then these Muslim fundamentalists, most of whom were from outside Iraq, tried to go too far. Not only did they insist on attacking native Iraqis who they felt were collaborating with the Americans and government authorities, but they also tried to seal their new authority within the native society by marrying the daughters of the various tribal chiefs. It was this, Hermann claims, that started those chiefs’ disenchantment with them.
(He also cites as another disenchanting factor for Anbar natives the supposed material and financial support that al-Qaeda in Iraq was supposedly enjoying from Iran. This unfortunately becomes a blow to the plausibility of Hermann’s very understanding of fundamental Iraqi conditions; if al-Qaeda militants were happy to assassinate local Sunni “collaborators” in Anbar, they were all-the-more bloodthirsty against Shias of any form, whom they considered Islamic heretics. Iranian support of any kind either to the militantly-Sunni al-Qaeda in Iraq or to any native Sunni Iraqi factions not only makes no sense, but in fact has become a handy rule-of-thumb for gauging credible knowledge of Iraqi conditions: those who assert that it is a fact – as both the Bush administration and the McCain campaign have – can safely be viewed as either not knowing what they are talking about and/or lying for various ulterior reasons.)
As a result of this conclusion by Anbar’s native chiefs that al-Qaeda in Iraq had turned into a cancer that had to be excised, they turned to the Americans in the late summer of 2006, in a successful process that brought the “Awakening Councils” and the “Sons of Iraq” on the American payroll (and which had nothing to do with the “surge” per se), which Filkins describes as well as any in his NYT report and The Atlantic interview. However, Hermann is readier to spot the storm clouds gathering on this sunny picture. The Maliki government is now starting to renege on what had been its promise to incorporate the forces of these “Awakening Councils” into the official Iraqi police and armed forces. That hand-over ceremony itself that occurred last Monday was originally supposed to happen last June 28; it had to be postponed twice, Hermann writes, due to “a sandstorm and internal disputes among the Sunnis.” That is not a particularly auspicious start.
Then there is the article in Die Zeit written by that newspaper’s editor and publisher, Josef Joffe (Is Bush winning in Iraq?). Its lede: “What seemed hardly thinkable, seems to be coming true: Calm is returning to Iraq.” Joffe also treats the vast improvement in the security situation in Anbar province, telling the same story of the disillusionment of the tribal chiefs there with al-Qaeda and the resulting cooperation with the Americans. But he uses that mainly as a jumping-off point for the improvement in conditions that supposedly has spread to the rest of the country as well. In particular, “normality” has allegedly also returned to Basra, Iraq’s second-largest city and its port, after Iraqi President al-Maliki last March sent his troops in to beat down the Shiite militias that held sway there (including Muqtada al-Sadr’s militia, which had been running wild there since British forces had withdrawn from within Basra to the local airport from last December). At the time all outside observers scoffed, finding it hard to believe that the Iraqi troops had it within them to clear out these militias – and they turned out to be right, since it was only support from American special forces troops and air support that enabled them to prevail.
Iraq Through Rose-Tinted Glasses
However it came about, however, according to Joffe Basra is now pacified, and “regional elections are supposed to follow.” He doesn’t mention how the enabling legislation for those elections has not been able to pass the Iraqi legislature; nor how a crisis seems to be coming to a head over the question of whether the oil-rich Kirkuk region in the north of the country will be formally incorporated into Kurdistan; nor how the government’s intentions towards those “Awakening Councils” in Anbar province seems to be to suppress them, and even arrest their members as Sunni political actors destined to become hostile sooner or later against the Shiite-dominated national government.
There is none of that, so that maybe Josef Joffe’s following of conditions in Iraq is not as close (or perhaps is rather more “rose-tinted”) than it should be. Whatever that case may be, it is nonetheless remarkable for such an “establishment” German commentator to be willing to write, as he does at the end of his piece, “[p]erhaps History will one day treat mercifully this president who is now in such ill-repute” – the comment coming as it does from the citizen of a country which opposed the Iraq War from the start, and in which George W. Bush is so unpopular that he had to be accommodated by Chancellor Angela Merkel during his European “farewell tour” of last June in a castle in the Thuringian countryside, i.e. not near any centers of population where the demonstrators would have come out in force.