Iraq's Uncertain Progress

Sunday, May 28, 2006

PRESIDENT BUSH spent much of the past week touting the formation of a new Iraqi government and with some reason: The vote by parliament in Baghdad last weekend essentially completed a 2 1/2 -year U.S. project to create a democratic political system. Though some fundamental issues, such as the terms of federalism and sharing of oil revenue, have not been resolved, Iraq now has a ratified constitution and an elected government that includes parties representing all three major ethnic groups. A Sunni boycott has been overcome, and turnout by average Iraqis has been impressive -- even inspiring -- in three successive national votes.

There is, however, a problem with the celebration and with the U.S. troop withdrawals it may presage: The political process, though a success in its own terms, has manifestly failed to stabilize Iraq or even to produce any meaningful movement in that direction. The Sunni insurgency is as active and strong as it was two years ago; though U.S. casualties have dropped in the first five months of this year, compared with the same period last year, attacks have not. The overall level of killing is far higher today than it was in late 2003 because of the gathering momentum of sectarian bloodshed among Sunnis and Shiites. Reconstruction, too, has gone backward since sovereignty was handed to an interim government in June 2004: Oil production and electricity generation are down.

A similar analysis applies to the other main leg of Mr. Bush's Iraq strategy, the training of the Iraqi army. Iraqi armed forces and police number 254,000 and are supposed to reach their target strength of 273,000 by the end of the year. Still, many Iraqis feel less secure than they did two years ago. If the ultimate measure of success is Iraq's pacification, the U.S. mission is producing results but no visible progress.

Does that mean that the strategy is wrong or that the mission should be abandoned? It's too early to draw that conclusion. The new government and its army have been painfully assembled over the course of many months: they should be given a chance to tackle the insurgency and stabilize the country with U.S. support. Encouragingly, new Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has announced plans to rein in the government security forces and Shiite militias that are responsible for much of the sectarian killing, while President Jalal Talabani has been negotiating with Sunni insurgents. There is also a new plan to pacify Baghdad.

These initiatives may fail, but they are certainly preferable to the alternatives, which are to hand a victory to Sunni and Islamic extremists or allow Iraq to slip into full-scale civil war. Mr. Bush avoided questions last week about the troop withdrawals his commanders have been contemplating, including a reduction of American forces from 135,000 to 100,000 by the November elections; we hope he was sincere when he declared that any reduction will be based on military rather than political considerations. As British Prime Minister Tony Blair argued during his White House visit Thursday, "now that there is a democratic government in Iraq elected by its people, and now they are confronted with those whose mission it is to destroy the hope of democracy, then our sense of mission should be equal to that."

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