In Iraq, Signs of Hope and Peril

By David Ignatius
Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Thanksgiving day is a moment to celebrate the news from Iraq of declining violence and increased security. But it's also a time for honesty and humility about what this good news portends.

The signs of improvement in Iraq are clearer every week. The latest numbers show a 55 percent drop in attacks since the surge of U.S. troops reached full strength in June, and a 60 percent drop in Iraqi civilian casualties since then. This translates into the beginning of a return of normal life, with people going to restaurants, taking walks, having weddings. The New York Times bannered this human story across its front page this week: "Baghdad Starts to Exhale as Security Improves."

Only someone with a heart of stone would not rejoice at this news. When you think of the suffering Iraqis have endured -- through the decades of Saddam Hussein's brutality, the years of punishing economic sanctions, the U.S. invasion and the terrible aftermath of insurgency and sectarian killing -- even a little bit of progress is worth a cheer.

But what accounts for these welcome changes? That's where we need to be careful. This isn't an American victory over a well-defined adversary; it's not that kind of war. And Iraqis aren't showering their American liberators with flowers now any more than they were in April 2003. A more complicated set of factors is at work, and it's worth examining two of them carefully.

First, it's clear that al-Qaeda in Iraq is losing, even if we aren't exactly "winning." A senior State Department official in Baghdad said this week that "al-Qaeda is in disarray and even in retreat." Its Hussein-like tactics of intimidation have backfired badly and triggered a revolt among Sunni tribal leaders. This "Awakening" is spreading across Sunni areas of Iraq, drawing in former Baathists as well as the tribal sheiks.

Even Osama bin Laden understands that al-Qaeda has stumbled badly in Iraq. In an Oct. 22 audiotape that attracted too little notice at the time, bin Laden scolded his followers for tactics that alienated Iraqis. "Mistakes have been made during holy wars," he said. "Some of you have been lax in one duty, which is to unite your ranks."

Bin Laden's self-criticism was "possibly the most important message" in al-Qaeda's history, wrote Abdel Bari Atwan, an Arab journalist who has interviewed bin Laden and written an insightful biography. "It is the first time that bin Laden recognizes the error committed by the members of his organization and in particular the excesses committed in Iraq."

Second, the recent security gains reflect the fact that Iran is standing down, for the moment. The Iranian-backed Mahdi Army of Moqtada al-Sadr has sharply curtailed its operations. The shelling of the Green Zone by Iranian-backed militias in Sadr City has stopped. The flow of deadly roadside bombs from Iran appears to have slowed or stopped. And to make it official, the Iranians announced Tuesday that they will resume security discussions in Baghdad with U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker.

I suspect the Iranians' new policy of accommodation is a tactical shift. They still want to exert leverage over a future Iraq, but they have concluded that the best way to do so is to work with U.S. forces -- and speed our eventual exit -- rather than continue a policy of confrontation. A genuine U.S.-Iranian understanding about stabilizing Iraq would be a very important development. But we should see it for what it is: The Iranians will contain their proxy forces in Iraq because it's in their interest to do so.

As a caution against over-enthusiasm about the surge, it's useful to consider what happens in a "draw play" in football. Defensive linemen go charging toward the quarterback, congratulating themselves on evading the blockers, when suddenly the opposing running back races past, and they realize, "Oops! We've been suckered." A Syrian analyst draws a similar picture of what's happening now in Iraq. He notes that former insurgents are regrouping and forming alliances among Sunni and Shiite militias that oppose the United States. "This will be known as the era of deception," warns my Syrian friend.

Al-Qaeda's mistakes and Iran's tactical retreat don't diminish the importance of what Gen. David Petraeus and U.S. forces are accomplishing. But the hard work of building a stable Iraqi state is still ahead. The Bush administration needs to seize this moment and speed the transition to Iraqi control. If our troop levels in Iraq are "conditions-based," and conditions really are improving, then a whole lot more soldiers should be home next Thanksgiving.

The writer is co-host of PostGlobal, an online discussion of international issues. His e-mail address is

© 2007 The Washington Post Company