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Salvaging Iraq

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By David Ignatius
Wednesday, June 7, 2006

The images from Iraq are of hell on earth: On Sunday 12 Iraqi students traveling to Baqubah to take their final exams were dragged from a bus and killed because they practiced the wrong religion. The next day gunmen dressed in police uniforms kidnapped 56 people near the bus station in central Baghdad and hauled them off in pickup trucks.

This is an Iraqi nightmare, and America seems powerless to stop it. What would you think if you were the parent of one of those dead Iraqi children? You would want the United States, the nation that broke the fragile bonds that once held Iraq together, to act more effectively to control this violence. And you would want Iraq's so-called government of national unity to behave like one and stop the killers who are devouring the decent people of Iraq. And if neither the Americans nor the Iraqi government could protect your children, you would turn to the militias.

The American project in Iraq is unraveling. The president continues to talk about staying the course, and the White House still issues upbeat predictions of victory, but the course we are on is not working. The election of Iraq's first permanent government in December was the last good chance to put the pieces together. Nearly seven months after the elections, Iraqi politicians still can't agree on who should run the two key ministries, defense and interior.

An American friend wrote me this week from Iraq: "The civil war rages in Baghdad, regardless of what the PC word currently being used in Washington to describe the killing is these days. Each morning when the sun comes up, the bodies of the killings from the night before are gathered up and sent to the hospitals where they try to figure out who they are. While the new government, all of the ministries, the coalition and the bloated embassy bureaucracy all sit frozen in the Green Zone, this civil war rages on just outside the wire and concrete barriers."

A devastating summary of America's mistakes is contained in the latest installment of the Pentagon's quarterly report to Congress, "Measuring Stability and Security in Iraq." In every part of the country, fewer people than a year ago think the situation is better now than before the war. In the Baghdad area, pollsters found the percentage of optimists had fallen by half since March 2005, to about 30 percent.

And the violence grinds on: The rate of insurgent attacks is higher now than it was in 2004, with an average of more than 600 a week since the new government took over in February. U.S. military commanders talk of their success in splitting the Sunni insurgency, but the attack numbers don't reflect any lessening of its lethality. Meanwhile, the Shiites are fighting back with equal viciousness, and the Pentagon numbers show a sharp rise in sectarian killings over the past year.

What we're seeing in Iraq is a mismatch between ends and means: between a political strategy of unity and the reality of feuding factional leaders; between a military strategy of "clear, hold and build" counterinsurgency and the reality that most American soldiers remain hunkered down every day; between the goal of stabilizing the country and the daily reality of physical intimidation.

What can America do to mitigate the Iraq disaster? Certainly it doesn't need more strategy papers. The political and military strategies now in place talk the right language of unity and counterinsurgency, but this is still mostly Green Zone talk. Marine Capt. Scott A. Cuomo argues in the June edition of Marine Corps Gazette that the U.S. military should make "embedded training teams," living and fighting with the Iraqi security forces, its main effort. He says frankly of his own combat experience in Iraq: "We did very little to truly help indigenous security forces protect the populace from the insurgency."

A bold proposal comes from my friend in Iraq, who knows the security situation there intimately. He argues that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki should move his government's 27 ministries, which increasingly are operating in the Green Zone, out into the city. The Iraqi army would protect each outpost of the government, aided by U.S. teams. "The population needs to see there is a government that has the courage to reclaim the city, one district at a time."

My friend likens the current frantic pace in the Green Zone to people in socks trying to run on a slick linoleum floor. "There is a lot of activity, but very little forward motion," he writes. "Hope is not a strategic plan, and the status quo is unacceptable."

davidignatius@washpost.com


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