Friday, February 22, 2008

Ignore Iraq at your own risk: The good news just keeps coming

More good news from Iraq; it turns out crazy Moqtada al-Sadr has decided to extend his cease-fire another six months. [AP] The cease-fire he called back in August is largely credited with reducing the level of violence in Iraq down to a dull roar. Some would like to say W.'s surge plan is responsible for the lower level of violence, down from the all out blood letting and mayhem of 2006/07, but 30,000 more troops wouldn't have really made that much of difference if one of the main combatants, the 100,000 strong Jaish-i-Mahdi, hadn't exited the battlefield. The standing down of the Mahdi Army and the fact that most of Baghdad has been turned into many little ethnically cleansed Green Zones, ones cordoned off by the US Army or the Iraqi security forces, also has had lot to do with all the "progress" going on in Iraq.

So now we can all turn out attention to other things. Mission accomplished! Nowadays, according to the media, most folks are more focused on the economy or the presidential races to pay much attention to what's going on in Iraq. One might be content to just bask in the good news coming out of Iraq and get on with their lives; just listen to Iraq expert Anthony Cordesman who reports "from the battlefield" for the Center for Strategic Studies:

"No one can spend some 10 days visiting the battlefields in Iraq without seeing major progress in every area. If the U.S. provides sustained support for the Iraqi government -- in security, governance and development -- there is a very real chance that Iraq will emerge as a secure and stable state. "

With good news like that, who would be crazy enough to even think of pulling our troops out? As Cordesman says:

"It will take a strong U.S. involvement throughout the life of the next administration to succeed, and it may well take U.S. aid through 2016."

Who knows, maybe the administration after that, too; so let's all get on board and support the Surge for as long as it takes, even if most of us are dead of old age by the time we're out of there.

Naturally, there are some slight little problems still to work out before Iraq emerges as a secure and stable state. For one thing, one of the major factors involved in making Cordesman's fantasies come true, of Iraq becoming a Western-style democracy -- an America-friendly aircraft-carrier in the Middle East -- is the continuing assistance of the Sunni "Concerned Citizens" in the fight against AQI. (You remember Al-Qaeda in Iraq, right? They're the fly in the ointment that keeps blowing all the good news to bits.)

See, we need the Mahdi Army and the "Concerned Citizens" to play along in order to allow the politicians in Baghdad get on with their work of reaching milestones (Like that'll happen in any of our lifetimes). And just hope the Turks don't go overboard in northern Iraq (They just launched a ground invasion). Cordesman reminds us that "serious threats can still bring defeat or paralysis over the coming years [or decades?], although this seem significantly less likely than in the fall of 2007."

Whew! That's good news.

But there might be a few dark linings in Cordesman's silvery clouds and blue skies. Terry Gross interviewed Patrick Coburn of the Independent yesterday on Fresh Air and he, after spending 22 years visiting the battlefields of Iraq, has come to the conclusion that there has been very little progress made in Iraq.

As he points out, there has been a reduction in violence, but look what these lower figures are being compared with. AQI attacks in Baghdad are down to 12 or so a day, according to the US military (take with a grain of salt), down from 46 a day last year. These days there are only a few dozen bodies appearing in the streets every morning, compared to a hundred or so a year ago. [Gosh, I love the smell of major success and rotting corpses in the morning.]

And ironies of ironies, when he visited Fallujah recently (unembedded), site of two major battles involving the Marines in 2004, he found that the very same people we were fighting back then are back in control of the city. They were insurgents, dead-enders, terrorists then; now they're our good buddies. It's just a love fest going on in Fallujah, but there is the slightest of chance that the Sunni insurgents we're paying and arming with shiny new weapons might be just retooling and biding their time before they renew their fight against us and the Shiites.

Coburn spoke with the local tribal chief (whose brother is the chief of police of Fallujah) who claims he's got 13,000 fighters at his disposal. At the time Coburn talked with him, he was saying he'd about had it with the Americans and was going to go back on the offensive in three months. That was three months ago.

Tensions have been rising over the past month between the former insurgents and the US military. On Feb. 4 a US air strike killed 9 civilians, including a child, in Iskandariyah when a helicopter gunship mistook our good buddies the concerned citizens for insurgents (how could they make a mistake like that?). On the 17 another two Sons of Iraq were killed in a mistaken shoot-out with US troops just south of Baghdad. Col. Tom James of the Army's Fourth Brigade, 3rd ID says "It's a very, very complex environment out there." [LATimes]

Boy, he can say that again.

Another complex issue confronting the US and Iraqi security forces is AQI introducing women suicide bombers, many mentally ill, into the mix. The Iraqis have an answer for that, though, the AP reports:

"The Iraqi Interior Minister ordered police yesterday to begin rounding up beggars, the homeless, and mentally disable people from the streets of Baghdad and other cities to prevent insurgents from using them as suicide bombers. . . Those detained in the Baghdad sweep will be handed over to social-welfare institutions and psychiatric hospitals that can provide shelter and care for them, said and Iraqi Interior Ministry spokesman, Maj. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf."

That's very reassuring, I'm sure they'll all be safe and sound in an Iraqi mental hospital. Except for the fact that the AP reports that Iraqi's medical care has fallen to the brink of collapse.

"According to figures the Iraqi Health Ministry released earlier this year, 618 medical employees, including 132 doctors, as well as medics and other health-care workers [like psychiatric workers?] have been killed nationwide since 2003, among the professionals from many fields caught up in Iraq's sectarian violence. Hundreds, possibly thousands, of other medical personnel are believed to have fled to Iraq's northern semiautonomous Kurdistan region and neighboring countries."

How does Anthony Cordesman expect Iraq to "emerge" as a stable state without water, electricity, hospitals, schools and pretty much everything else a country needs to function? Just because two of the three or four sides in Iraq's multi-pronged civil war are taking a breather doesn't mean we're on our way to nirvana on the Euphrates in just eight short years. If we really want to stick this one out, we're talking a few more trillion bucks and a couple more generations of American kids to see it through. Maybe, John McCain is right, maybe we will be there for a hundred years; that's not progress though, that's called bankruptcy.


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