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Preview: RealClearPolitics - Articles - Robert Zelnick

RealClearPolitics - Articles - Robert Zelnick

Last Build Date: Tue, 09 Jan 2007 00:08:17 -0600

Copyright: Copyright 2007

Iraq: Last Chance

Tue, 09 Jan 2007 00:08:17 -0600

I had the feeling during much of my visit that the time of illusion had passed. No longer could failure be disguised as the invention of lazy journalists confined to the secure Green Zone or their biased editors back home. With Baghdad's sixty-mile circumference defining one of the world's largest killing zones and Anbar Province in the Sunni heartland locked in a bloody stalemate, no one was likely to be impressed by fallback reiterations that fourteen of the country's eighteen provinces were secure, averaging fewer than two violent incidents per day, or that three-fourths of the country receives more hours of electricity per day than it had before the war. All eyes were (justifiably) on Baghdad, and the capital's slide into chaos showed no signs of reprieve. In an act of arrogant complacency worthy of Marie Antoinette, the Council of Representatives went on more than a month's holiday, ignoring U.S. pleas to remain in emergency session at least until the situation in the capital improved. But with U.S. public opinion turning sharply against the war, soon to be reflected in a landscape-changing election for control of Congress, pressure to produce visible progress on the ground weighed heavily on the minds of Coalition military and diplomatic leaders. "The center of gravity for both Americans and Iraqis right now is something hard to measure: Time," observed Colonel David Gray, commander of the 1st Brigade, 101st Airborne Division operating primarily in the Kurdish North. "How much time and perseverance do we have?" The consensus among those I interviewed was that if a dramatic reversal in the country's fortunes could not be demonstrated within the next 6-12 months, the call to establish a deadline for withdrawal would become a cacophony of irresistible demands. The Coalition, however, neither bears the burden nor enjoys the luxury of singular command. The Iraqis have both sovereignty and international legitimacy and with them all the trappings, if not the capability, of a full-fledged government. More and more, the big decisions that will make or break the country fall into Iraqi hands -- reconciliation, federalism, the divvying up of oil revenues, the status of Kirkuk, and the future of sectarian militias. "We could do everything right and still lose," said General Casey on a blistering day near the end of August. Perhaps. Still, there is a difference of some consequence between the failure to achieve optimum objectives and defeat. The former we can accommodate; the latter we should not. The new sheriff in town The troubles of Baghdad did not begin, as common lore has it, with February's destruction of the Shia's Golden Mosque in Samarra. Deteriorating security in and around the Iraqi capital has been a fact of life since the heady early days following the U.S. invasion. Veterans of that period wistfully recall lunches with friends in downtown Baghdad and travel by public taxicab or unarmored embassy car. Gradually those memories were replaced by accounts of fevered dashes to the airport -- body armor in place -- steep-angle takeoffs and landings, and midnight helicopter rides often punctuated by the smack of bullets against the aircraft and the dispatch of flares to distract ground fire. To the visitor, Baghdad now seems a city in panic. Tens of thousands of Sunnis and Shia have fled. The imprecise Baghdad estimate is 125,000; nationally it is 300,000. Those who stay live in constant fear, locking themselves in their homes and businesses, wary of saying the wrong thing to the wrong person, though it is increasingly difficult to ascribe any kind of logic to the rising wave of violence. When I sat down with a group of Iraqi engineers in Baghdad, they could speak of nothing else. "I live on Palestine Street, which is supposed to be one of the nicest areas, and still there is no water and no electricity," said one man. "People get killed, but nobody knows why. People say it is for religious reasons, for political reasons, but we have many friends and family members who are killed and we know they have none of these[...]