President Bush describes Iraq as a young but hopeful democracy with a “unity government,” a country in which “the sight of an old man pulling an election lever” terrifies al-Qaida members and other terrorists and sectarians. We can all hope these and other optimistic assessments may prove valid in the long run, even if the run is long indeed.
Unfortunately, two reports from military people more closely in touch with the situation paint a less-cheery picture.
On Sept. 1 the Pentagon released its quarterly report to Congress on the situation on the ground in Iraq. It noted that in the past three months or so — the report covers the period since May 20, when the Iraqi government led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was seated — illegal militias have become more entrenched than before, especially in Baghdad neighborhoods.
“Death squads and terrorists are locked in mutually reinforcing cycles of sectarian strife,” the report said. Even as the sectarian violence overshadows it in importance, however, the Sunni-led insurgency, mainly against U.S. forces and the sitting Iraqi government, “remains potent and viable.”
Between May 20 and Aug. 11, the average number of attacks per week against Americans and Iraqis was 792, up 24 percent from the previous quarter and the highest of any three-month period since the war began.
“Conditions that could lead to civil war exist in Iraq,” the report said, “specifically in and around Baghdad, and concern about civil war within the Iraqi civilian population has increased in recent months.” Opinion polls show Iraqis more pessimistic about the future than they have been since the war began.
Last week, a classified report from the Marine Corps’ chief of intelligence in Iraq, Col. Pete Devlin, was in the news. Col. Devlin reportedly wrote that the prospects for securing the western Anbar province of Iraq is dim, and there is almost nothing the U.S. military can do to improve the situation. According to military officials who have read the report, it notes that there are no functioning Iraqi government institutions in Anbar, and the vacuum has been filled by al-Qaida in Iraq.
Other military officials note that conditions in Anbar are not necessarily reflective of the rest of Iraq, but Anbar is a significant place. It encompasses 30 percent of Iraq’s land mass and includes both Ramadi and Fallujah, where the fiercest fighting outside Baghdad has occurred.
Most of the so-called Sunni Triangle is in Fallujah. If it is essentially lost beyond hope of repair by U.S. or Iraqi government forces, that is hardly a good sign that a “unity” government is viable.
It may be that these are simply short-term trends, that success in Iraq, however defined — and the administration would do well to provide a more concrete definition than “defeat these enemies now” — is still possible, perhaps with the temporary infusion of more U.S. troops.
But these reports from military officials charged with directing the efforts of the “boots on the ground” and assessing their prospects, suggest that just now conditions in Iraq are deteriorating. They certainly deserve serious attention.