washingtonpost.com
One Choice in Iraq

By Joe Lieberman
Thursday, April 26, 2007

Last week a series of coordinated suicide bombings killed more than 170 people. The victims were not soldiers or government officials but civilians -- innocent men, women and children indiscriminately murdered on their way home from work and school.

If such an atrocity had been perpetrated in the United States, Europe or Israel, our response would surely have been anger at the fanatics responsible and resolve not to surrender to their barbarism.

Unfortunately, because this slaughter took place in Baghdad, the carnage was seized upon as the latest talking point by advocates of withdrawal here in Washington. Rather than condemning the attacks and the terrorists who committed them, critics trumpeted them as proof that Gen. David Petraeus's security strategy has failed and that the war is "lost."

And today, perversely, the Senate is likely to vote on a binding timeline of withdrawal from Iraq.

This reaction is dangerously wrong. It reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of both the reality in Iraq and the nature of the enemy we are fighting there.

What is needed in Iraq policy is not overheated rhetoric but a sober assessment of the progress we have made and the challenges we still face.

In the two months since Petraeus took command, the United States and its Iraqi allies have made encouraging progress on two problems that once seemed intractable: tamping down the Shiite-led sectarian violence that paralyzed Baghdad until recently and consolidating support from Iraqi Sunnis -- particularly in Anbar, a province dismissed just a few months ago as hopelessly mired in insurgency.

This progress is real, but it is still preliminary.

The suicide bombings we see now in Iraq are an attempt to reverse these gains: a deliberate, calculated counteroffensive led foremost by al-Qaeda, the same network of Islamist extremists that perpetrated catastrophic attacks in Kenya, Indonesia, Turkey and, yes, New York and Washington.

Indeed, to the extent that last week's bloodshed clarified anything, it is that the battle of Baghdad is increasingly a battle against al-Qaeda. Whether we like it or not, al-Qaeda views the Iraqi capital as a central front of its war against us.

Al-Qaeda's strategy for victory in Iraq is clear. It is trying to kill as many innocent people as possible in the hope of reigniting Shiite sectarian violence and terrorizing the Sunnis into submission.

In other words, just as Petraeus and his troops are working to empower and unite Iraqi moderates by establishing basic security, al-Qaeda is trying to divide and conquer with spectacular acts of butchery.

That is why the suggestion that we can fight al-Qaeda but stay out of Iraq's "civil war" is specious, since the very crux of al-Qaeda's strategy in Iraq has been to try to provoke civil war.

The current wave of suicide bombings in Iraq is also aimed at us here in the United States -- to obscure the recent gains we have made and to convince the American public that our efforts in Iraq are futile and that we should retreat.

When politicians here declare that Iraq is "lost" in reaction to al-Qaeda's terrorist attacks and demand timetables for withdrawal, they are doing exactly what al-Qaeda hopes they will do, although I know that is not their intent.

Even as the American political center falters, the Iraqi political center is holding. In the aftermath of last week's attacks, there were no large-scale reprisals by Shiite militias -- as undoubtedly would have occurred last year. Despite the violence, Iraq's leadership continues to make slow but visible progress toward compromise and reconciliation.

But if tomorrow Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds were to achieve the "political solution" we all hope for, the threat of al-Qaeda in Iraq would not vanish.

Al-Qaeda, after all, isn't carrying out mass murder against civilians in the streets of Baghdad because it wants a more equitable distribution of oil revenue. Its aim in Iraq isn't to get a seat at the political table; it wants to blow up the table -- along with everyone seated at it.

Certainly al-Qaeda can be weakened by isolating it politically. But even after the overwhelming majority of Iraqis agree on a shared political vision, there will remain a hardened core of extremists who are dedicated to destroying that vision through horrific violence. These forces cannot be negotiated or reasoned out of existence. They must be defeated.

The challenge before us, then, is whether we respond to al-Qaeda's barbarism by running away, as it hopes we do -- abandoning the future of Iraq, the Middle East and ultimately our own security to the very people responsible for last week's atrocities -- or whether we stand and fight.

To me, there is only one choice that protects America's security -- and that is to stand, and fight, and win.

The writer is an independent Democratic senator from Connecticut.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company