Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Iraq Reality Check

John Burns, the best reporter in Iraq, gives us some necessary perspective:

BAGHDAD, Iraq, May 18 - American military commanders in Baghdad and Washington gave a sobering new assessment on Wednesday of the war in Iraq, adding to the mood of anxiety that prompted Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to come to Baghdad last weekend to consult with the new government.

In interviews and briefings this week, some of the generals pulled back from recent suggestions, some by the same officers, that positive trends in Iraq could allow a major drawdown in the 138,000 American troops late this year or early in 2006. One officer suggested Wednesday that American military involvement could last "many years."

Gen. John P. Abizaid, the top American officer in the Middle East, said in a briefing in Washington that one problem was the disappointing progress in developing Iraqi police units cohesive enough to mount an effective challenge to insurgents and allow American forces to begin stepping back from the fighting. General Abizaid, who speaks with President Bush and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld regularly, was in Washington this week for a meeting of regional commanders.

In Baghdad, a senior officer said Wednesday in a background briefing that the 21 car bombings in Baghdad so far this month almost matched the total of 25 in all of last year.

Against this, he said, there has been a lull in insurgents' activity in Baghdad in recent days after months of some of the bloodiest attacks, a trend that suggested that American pressure, including the capture of important bomb makers, had left the insurgents incapable of mounting protracted offensives.

But the officer said that despite Americans' recent successes in disrupting insurgent cells, which have resulted in the arrest of 1,100 suspects in Baghdad alone in the past 80 days, the success of American goals in Iraq was not assured.

"I think that this could still fail," the officer said at the briefing, referring to the American enterprise in Iraq. "It's much more likely to succeed, but it could still fail."

The officer said much depended on the new government's success in bolstering public confidence among Iraqis. He said recent polls conducted by Baghdad University had shown confidence flagging sharply, to 45 percent, down from an 85 percent rating immediately after the election. "For the insurgency to be successful, people have to believe the government can't survive," he said. "When you're in the middle of a conflict, you're trying to find pillars of strength to lean on."

The jihadis (as Christopher Hitchens instructs us to call them; NYT still isn't listening) in Iraq are well aware of this, thus their brutal bombings and assassinations of Iraqi soldiers, civilians and government officials to weaken these "pillars of strength." They also know it's their last stand. If you're going to go down, may as well go down with a fight.

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