Although every day in Iraq repeats the endless spiral of bombs in crowded bazaars and mosques each fueling demands for retribution things are slowly getting better. Last month the number of violent deaths in Iraq fell to 275, down from 437 in June. And that's a good sign for the security prospects following the redeployment of U.S. forces out of Iraq's urban areas. In Baghdad, the violence has ebbed to the point that the Iraqi government, whose forces are now responsible for security, this week announced that over the next 40 days, it will tear down the razor-wire-topped blast walls that had for years divided the capital into a collection of fortified, warring Sunni and Shi'ite fiefdoms.
With levels of violence having been tamped down to a degree manageable by Iraqi forces and with Iraq's sectarian and ethnic political divisions having become an apparently intractable feature of post-Saddam political life that no amount of U.S. cajoling appears likely to resolve, this may be as good as it gets in Iraq. And if so, why should American soldiers hang around until 2011 in a war costing America in the region of $12 billion a month and whose U.S. casualty count is nearing 4,500 dead and 30,000 wounded?
That question isn't being asked only by liberal antiwar opinion-makers. It has also been raised by a growing number of senior officials in Washington and U.S. commanders in Iraq. An internal memo drafted by Colonel Timothy Reese, an adviser to the Iraqi senior military command, and leaked to the New York Times last month doesn't mince words. He writes that it is time "for the U.S. to declare victory and bring our combat forces home."
The gist of the colonel's argument is that there is nothing significant that a continued U.S. military presence can do to improve either the delivery of "essential services" to Iraqis or the ability and inclination of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's sloppy and quarrelsome Shi'ite-dominated government to reconcile with the Sunnis and Kurds.
In fact, there are a growing number of warning signs that the Iraqi government is no longer under the sway of the U.S. forces that brought it into being. Reese notes a "sudden coolness" being displayed by Iraqi commanders toward their American counterparts after June 30, the date when the Status of Forces Agreement, concluded between Baghdad and Washington last December, required that U.S. combat forces withdraw from Iraq's towns and cities. Following that date, suspects detained by U.S. soldiers were freed by Iraqis. And the Iraqi government openly disdained the recent offer by Vice President Joe Biden during a visit to Baghdad to help mediate in its conflicts with Kurds and Sunnis. Top military adviser Reese likened the relationship between Iraqi and U.S. soldiers to a "father teaching his kid to ride a bike without training wheels," explaining, "Our hand on the back of the [Iraqis'] seat is holding them back and causing resentment. We need to let go before we both tumble to the ground."
Reese's point is simple: Despite having more than 130,000 troops there, the U.S. has lost all strategic influence with al-Maliki's government, and with it any ability to influence the outcome in Iraq. So why drag it out?
Declaring victory, however, requires that victory be defined. How could a U.S. pullout be finessed in such a way that the American people won't see it as a hasty retreat and a waste of lives? Reese argues, correctly, that the 2007 surge and a policy of hiring nearly 100,000 ex-Sunni insurgents have isolated al-Qaeda inspired extremists, many of them fanatics from abroad itching to martyr themselves by killing U.S. soldiers. He also says that despite the Iraqi government's corruption, nepotism and ineffectiveness, its security forces are restoring some semblance of order.
There's no denying that the 2003 U.S. invasion unleashed chaos in Iraq, as sectarian hatreds, Iranian influence and ancient feuds over land and the oil beneath it produced a storm of bloodletting. But last month, once U.S. troops began to shrink back to their giant bases, which are like sand-blown, little American cities, with pizza and burger chains, they ceased to be the dominant player in Iraq. And if the U.S. can no longer influence events in Iraq, what's the point of lingering around eating gritty pizza?