Generally Speaking

"Sons of Iraq" and "Sons of Iraq"
Thursday, April 10, 2008

During two days of congressional hearings, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, above, deployed terms that hold special -- and evolving -- meaning for anyone trying to assess the state of the Iraq war.

-- Glenn Kessler

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"Sons of Iraq"

Once known as the Awakening Councils, these are former Sunni militants who joined up with (and are paid by) Americans to battle their former compatriots. The "awakening" started in Anbar province last year, and was hailed by President Bush as "brave Iraqis . . . protecting their communities from the terrorists and insurgents." The groups were relabeled "Concerned Local Citizens" by the U.S. military when the movement began to spread beyond Anbar. But "concerned" does not translate well into Arabic -- it sounded more like "worried" -- and so the new designation was adopted about a month ago, and now it adorns one of the slides Petraeus presented to Congress.

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"Battlefield Geometry"

This term, which is supposed to reflect the complexity of the conditions in Iraq, has been part of Petraeus's vocabulary for about a year. He uses it mainly in reference to his movement of troops around the country; as the U.S. military reduces its presence, units move in to cover certain areas while Iraqi forces move in to replace other U.S. troops. Petraeus has also referred to a "political military calculus" that helps pinpoint when conditions are right to remove troops, though he adds: "It's not a mathematical exercise."

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"Special Groups"

These are Shiite extremists -- often associated with the Jaish al-Mahdi (JAM), the paramilitary group created by radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr -- who continue to fight U.S. troops. The term briefly predates a cease-fire Sadr declared last year, but since then it has helped the military distinguish what it considers the good JAM members (those obeying the cease-fire) from the bad (renegade, criminal types armed and trained by Iran). The military draws a fine line, saying that the principles of Sadr's organization, such as helping the community, are beneficial to Iraq but that militants fighting against U.S. and Iraqi troops are not acceptable.

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While Petraeus delivers an overall positive impression of Iraq, he repeatedly slips in this adjective as an all-purpose signal that no one should hold him accountable for his optimism. Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker, who testified with Petraeus, is also fond of "fragile." Both men, in fact, emphasize the tenuous nature of their appraisal, as in: "The progress made since last spring is fragile and reversible."

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