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thedrifter
07-16-08, 08:05 AM
OPINION
The New Reality in Iraq
By FREDERICK W. KAGAN , KIMBERLY KAGAN AND JACK KEANE
July 16, 2008; Page A17

All of the most important objectives of the surge have been accomplished in Iraq. The sectarian civil war is ended; al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) has been dealt a devastating blow; and the Sadrist militia and other Iranian-backed militant groups have been disrupted.

Meanwhile, the Iraqi government has accomplished almost all of the legislative benchmarks set by the U.S. Congress and the Bush administration. More important, it is gaining wider legitimacy among the population. The attention of Iraqis across the country is focused on the upcoming provincial elections, which will be a pivotal moment in Iraq's development.

The result is that we have an extraordinary -- but fleeting -- opportunity to advance America's security and the stability of a vital region of the world.

As far as the civil war is concerned, there have been virtually no sectarian killings recorded for the past 10 weeks. Violence is still perpetrated by organized groups, but AQI, the remnant Sunni insurgents and Shiite fighters are now focused on attacking their own members who have defected to our side. This is a measure of their weakness. The Iraqi population is increasingly mobilizing against the perpetrators of violence, flooding American and Iraqi forces with tips about the locations of weapons caches and key militant leaders -- Sunnis turning in Sunnis and Shia turning in Shia.

The fighters have not simply hidden their weapons and gone to ground to await the next opportunity to kill each other. The Sunni insurgency, as well as AQI, has been severely disrupted. Coalition and Iraqi forces have killed or detained many key leaders, driven the militants out of every one of Iraq's major cities (including Mosul), and are pursuing the remnants vigorously in rural areas and the desert.

The Shiite militias have also been broken apart, sending thousands of their leaders scurrying for safety in Iran. Iraqi forces continue to hammer Iranian-backed Special Groups and elements of the Sadrist Jaysh al Mahdi that have been fighting with them in Sadr City, Maysan Province, and elsewhere. At this time, none of these networks can conduct operations that could seriously destabilize the Iraqi government. But both al Qaeda and the Iranians are working hard to refit their networks.

The larger strategic meaning of these military and political advances must be kept clearly in mind. Iraq remains a critical front in al Qaeda's war against the U.S.

Discussions in the American media about whether AQI is "really" al Qaeda are puerile. AQI's leadership, largely foreign, is part of the global al Qaeda network operating in support of Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden and his lieutenants in Pakistan and around the world send support (including foreign fighters) to Iraq and closely follow the situation there, as their repeated public pronouncements show no less than their actions. Al Qaeda's central leadership is not prepared to lose in Iraq, and has been seeking ways to regain lost ground.

Within Iraq, AQI operatives are still seeking aggressively to re-establish bases from which they can launch more substantial operations in the future. They are failing because of the continuous pressure American and Iraqi forces are putting on them from Baghdad to Mosul. If that pressure is relaxed, they will begin to succeed again.

The Iranian leaders responsible for Iranian policy in Iraq -- principally Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and Brigadier General Qassim Soleimani, commander of the Qods Force -- also remain determined. They are retraining and re-equipping thousands of fighters who fled the most recent Iraqi and Coalition operations in Basra, Baghdad, and Maysan Provinces.

Past patterns suggest those fighters will return to Iraq and attempt to restart attacks against Coalition Forces in time to disrupt Iraqi elections and to affect America's voting. Their attacks are likely to be more spectacular, but less effective at disrupting Iraqi government and society.

If America remains firm in its commitment to success in Iraq, success is very likely. The AQI and Shiite militias at present do not have the capacity to drive Iraq off course -- unless both the U.S. and the Iraqi government make a number of serious mistakes.

The most serious error would be to withdraw American forces too rapidly. That would strengthen the resolve of both al Qaeda and Iran to persevere in their efforts to disrupt the young Iraqi state and weaken the resolve of those Iraqis, particularly in the Iraqi Security Forces, who are betting their lives on continued American assistance.

The blunt fact is this. In Iraq, al Qaeda is on the ropes, and the Shiite militias are badly off-balance. Now is exactly the time to continue the pressure to keep them from regaining their equilibrium. It need not, and probably will not, require large numbers of American casualties to keep this pressure on. But it will require a considerable number of American troops through 2009.

Recent suggestions in Washington that reductions could begin sooner or proceed more rapidly are premature. The current force levels will be needed through the Iraqi provincial elections later this year, and consideration of force reductions makes sense only after those elections are over and the incoming commander in Iraq, Gen. Ray Odierno, has evaluated the new situation.

The benefits to the U.S. from seeing the fight through to the end far outweigh the likely costs. For one thing, Iraqis have shown their determination to increase their oil output, currently averaging 2.5 million barrels a day, as fast as they can -- something that can only happen if their country is secure.

Far more important is the opportunity in our hands today to work with a Muslim country in the heart of the Arab world to inflict the most visible and humiliating defeat possible on al Qaeda. Success in Iraq also makes it possible to establish a strategic partnership with a legitimate, democratic majority-Shia state that is aligned with the U.S. against Iran.

Recent comments by some Iraqi leaders about the current negotiations for a status-of-force agreement -- made in the context of an increasingly heated election season in Iraq, and with the desire to improve Iraq's bargaining position in the negotiations -- do not call the U.S. partnership into question. As we recently found in Baghdad, even the most outspoken advocates of rapid American force reductions strongly insist on a strategic partnership with America that helps Iraq stand up to Iran. Most of Iraq's military leaders are unequivocal about the need for a continued U.S. force presence.

The Iraqi government and people -- whose surging anti-Persian feeling is more obvious every day -- have already shown their willingness to push back against Iranian intervention. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's attack on Iranian-backed forces in Basra, followed by Iraqi-led operations in Baghdad, central Iraq and Maysan, is proof of Baghdad's willingness. Helping Iraq to succeed is our best hope of finding a way of resolving our differences with Iran over the long term without coming to blows.

It is time for Americans to recognize it's a whole new ballgame in Iraq. The civil war is over, American troops are not an "irritant" fueling the unrest, and far from becoming dependent upon us, the Iraqi government and the army show more determination every day to run their country and to protect it. But they continue to want and need our assistance.

While victory in war is never certain until the war is over, the odds are strongly with us for once -- provided we do the right thing. That is to stand by our best ally in the war against al Qaeda, and the struggle to contain Iran.

Ellie