Iraq and the Special Theory of Relativity

The Washington Post's Dana Milbank sketches Gen. David H. Petraeus's testimony in congress on Tuesday.Video: Akira Hakuta/
By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, April 9, 2008

You can't tell the enemy in Iraq anymore without a scorecard.

When the United States invaded Iraq five years ago, the enemy was Saddam Hussein and his Baathists. When Gen. David H. Petraeus and Ryan C. Crocker, respectively the U.S. commander and the ambassador to Iraq, came to testify to Congress last year, the enemy was al-Qaeda in Iraq. Yesterday, Petraeus and Crocker returned to Congress to report that the enemy had changed once again.

We are now fighting Iran-backed "special groups" in Iraq.

"Unchecked, the special groups pose the greatest long-term threat to the viability of a democratic Iraq," Petraeus testified.

The phrase "special groups" had a benign sound to it, like "special education" or "special sauce" or "special of the day." But don't be fooled. "The special groups' activities have, in fact, come out in greater relief during the violence of recent weeks," Petraeus told the senators. "It is they who have the expertise to shoot rockets more accurately, shoot mortars more accurately and to employ some of the more advanced material . . . that have not just killed our soldiers and Iraqi soldiers but also have been used to assassinate two southern governors in past months and two southern police chiefs."

Now, isn't that special?

The rapid proliferation of enemies in Iraq, special and otherwise, evidently confused Sen. John McCain, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee and that party's presumptive presidential nominee. Not for the first time in recent weeks, he confused Sunni Muslims with Shiite Muslims.

"Do you still view al-Qaeda in Iraq as a major threat?" he asked Petraeus.

Petraeus said the group was "not as major a threat as it was."

"Certainly not an obscure sect of the Shiites overall?" McCain persisted.

"No," Petraeus agreed.

Indeed, al-Qaeda is Sunni -- a fact McCain recalled an instant after the word "Shiites" escaped his lips. "Or Sunnis or anybody else," he quickly added.

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