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Iraq Surge’s Mixed Messages

Author: Greg Bruno
January 17, 2008

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[Editor’s Note: On February 13, 2008, Iraq’s parliament passed a trio of political reforms, including one setting up provincial elections. But on February 27, a three-member panel of senior Iraqi lawmakers approved the 2008 budget and a limited amnesty provision, while dismissing the elections measure. The rejection of the bill, which was sent back to parliament, was seen as a setback for the Bush administration’s efforts to promote political reconciliation.]

When President Bush announced in January 2007 a surge of five additional combat brigades to Baghdad, he said it would improve security in the capital, giving the Iraqi government the “breathing space it needs to make progress.” But one year after the plan’s announcement, measures of its success remain complicated and politically embroiled, particularly as campaigning for the U.S. presidency heats up.

One of the strategy’s primary goals was to reduce violence through a beefed-up U.S. troop presence in and around Baghdad. The Pentagon says that is happening; insurgent attacks fell 55 percent (PDF) between June and November, though the rate of decline has since slowed somewhat (WashPost). The size of the American force in Iraq is scheduled to return to pre-surge levels in the summer of 2008, but Bush said on January 12 he would leave the final decision on troop totals to Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq.  

Stephen Biddle, CFR’s senior defense analyst, noted last month that voluntary cease-fires have helped stabilize once-restive regions, though he adds that more needs to be done in Iraq’s northern and southern provinces. Aware of the trend, coalition forces launched a mini-surge (CSMonitor) in early 2008 to root out remaining al-Qaeda in Iraq strongholds northeast of Baghdad, where militants regrouped after Arab tribes in Anbar province turned against the Islamist extremists. For U.S. Senators John McCain (R-AZ), a leading Republican candidate for president, and Joe Lieberman (I-CT), such initiatives are evidence Bush’s surge has “utterly transformed” (WSJ) Iraq’s security.

Other benchmarks on security are less encouraging. In announcing his “new way forward” Bush called for an increase in the size of the Iraqi army to thirteen divisions from ten, and to 132 battalions from 112. But according to the Defense Department, neither target has been met (PDF). Of all Iraqi army units in operations, nearly a quarter are unable to plan, execute, or sustain operations without coalition assistance, the Pentagon estimates. The surge strategy has also taken a heavy toll on U.S. forces. With 762 troops killed in action (PDF), 2007 was the deadliest year in Iraq since hostilities began in March 2003.

Despite the “breathing space” gained for Iraqi politicians, they have been slow to reach consensus on a range of crucial issues. On January 12, Iraq’s parliament passed a law allowing some former members of Saddam Hussein’s Baathist party to return to their government jobs (Reuters)—but that was the first of eighteen political benchmarks set by Washington in early 2007 to be met. Reforms on holding provincial elections, constitutional changes, and oil-revenue sharing remain stalled (NYT). Democrats in Washington have seized on the slow political progress as proof of a failed U.S. strategy. “No amount of White House spin can hide the fact that the escalation’s chief objective of political reconciliation remains unmet,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NE) said earlier this month. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) argues the United States should cut its losses. The party’s leading candidates for the White House—Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY), Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL), and John Edwards—all continue to urge an early withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, although they also call for a residual U.S. force in or around Iraq.

Yet for all the political wrangling in Washington there is little doubt the debate over Iraq’s future has changed significantly since January 2007. “We appear to have finally reached a national consensus” on security gains in Iraq, says Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution. “We should not assume we have won yet…but all is far from lost in Iraq” (New Republic). Those doing the fighting, meanwhile, exhibit cautious optimism. “Success will not be akin to flipping on a light switch” (McClatchy) says Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq. “Rather, it will emerge slowly and fitfully, with reverses as well as advances.”

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