In Baghdad, a Show of Solidarity — and Force

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President Bush's arrival in Baghdad Tuesday caught Iraqis off guard, as the U.S. had planned. But these days it takes more than a visit from the American President to shock them. Coverage of Bush's arrival competed with continuing media coverage of World Cup soccer for the attention of Iraqis. And after the electric response last week to the death of Jordanian arch-terrorist Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the news of Bush's first visit in nearly three years was met with little excitement.

Life in Baghdad went on as usual — heavy traffic in sweltering heat, Kalashnikov-toting Iraqi police cruising the streets in flatbed trucks, the occasional crack of distant gunfire. In Kirkuk car bombs killed more than a dozen people. In the capital more bodies turned up in the streets.

Indeed, Bush's visit comes a day in advance of what could be a more significant event: a Baghdad-wide counterinsurgent crackdown involving tens of thousands of Iraqi troops. Both that operation and the Bush visit are an attempt to capitalize on the momentum of the past week, including the long-delayed appointment of government ministers responsible for the country's military and police.

The American president's visit, of course, is mainly symbolic — there's little he did in Baghdad that he couldn't have done over a videoconference from Camp David, as his official schedule for the day had called for. But symbolism matters. It puts the President firmly behind new Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki at a moment when speculation in the U.S. has turned to whether the Washington will begin later this year to draw down troop levels.

Putting tens of thousands of troops and police on the streets of Baghdad also makes a statement. But the new uniforms being issued to prevent insurgents from disguising themselves as cops and soldiers will help only until those uniforms are given away by sympathizers or sold on the black market. And for the new counterinsurgency initiative to stand a chance of producing lasting tangible results, it needs to be supported by serious reforms, especialy within the Interior Ministry, which Sunni politicians charge is infiltrated by militiamen loyal to Shi'ite political parties.

Both the Iraqi government and Washington recognize that the opportunity to take advantage of the death of Zarqawi won't last long. It's still not known whether Zarqawi was betrayed by less extreme elements within the insurgency. But if the Jordanian's death signals a fracturing or softening of the insurgency, now is clearly the time to exploit that weakness in pursuit of the long-running strategy of splitting off homegrown Sunni nationalists from foreign fighters and hard-core Baathists.

This week's show of force by itself will probably not change much. House-to-house raids and traffic checkpoints, after all, haven't quelled the insurgency in the past, they simply force the insurgents to lie low and resurface when the pressure inevitably eases.

"If they do it the same way they did before it will fail," said Mahmoud Othman, a member of Iraq's parliament of the counterinsurgency effort. And President Bush surely knows by now that the U.S. and Iraqi government can't afford to fail too many more times.