Iraq is the frontline of terrorism but win is far from certainty


“Trust that Iraq will be the graveyard for terrorism and terrorists for the good of all humanity,” said Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in an address to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday that went reasonably well despite some grumbling in advance. “Iraq is the front line in this struggle, and history will prove that the sacrifices of Iraqis for freedom will not be in vain,” he declared.

Those are noble sentiments indeed, and we can all hope they are validated in the long run. While speaking bravely, however, al-Maliki glossed over some of the serious problems his country faces in the short run.

Six weeks ago, when President Bush paid a surprise visit to Baghdad after the death of terrorist leader Musab al-Zarqawi, things looked brighter. Al-Maliki had finished forming a government in Baghdad and had a plan for subduing violence in the country’s capital.

Since then the situation has deteriorated. Curfews and beefed-up Iraqi police activities not only haven’t quelled the violence, the violence has gotten worse. According to a United Nations report, 100 Iraqis a day were killed in June, up from 65 to 70 a day for the first four months of the year. And the violence has become more sectarian — Shia Muslims killing Sunnis and vice versa rather than attacks by al-Qaida-linked foreign fighters. Many observers believe the country is on the verge of civil war, or may already have slipped into it.

As James Dobbins, the former diplomat who directs international security studies at the RAND Corp., said, “The situation is grim, and there’s no real basis for thinking it will turn around soon.”

The decision by President Bush to transfer up to 4,000 U.S. troops (and the same number of Iraqi troops) to Baghdad from other parts of the country is an acknowledgment that Prime Minister al-Maliki’s plan is a failure. Whether these troops can get the job done is far from assured, and moving them could open the door to more violence in other parts of the country.

In short, though one can always hold out hope, the concept of Iraq as a model democracy capable of inspiring democratic change in other parts of the Middle East is in tatters.

One potential positive — that al-Maliki runs an independent government rather than being a U.S. puppet — also has its downside. The Iraqi government has denounced Israel as the aggressor in the current conflict with Hezbollah and refuses to characterize Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. The Iraqi government wants the ability to try U.S. soldiers accused of crimes against Iraqi citizens in Iraqi courts rather than U.S. military courts. Such disagreements could make it difficult for the United States and Iraq to coordinate strategies.

Both President Bush and Prime Minister al-Maliki seemed unusually somber on Wednesday, suggesting they grasp the seriousness of the situation. It remains to be seen whether they have a strategy with much chance of success.