What I Saw in Iraq
Iran remains a problem, but Anbar has joined the fight against terror.

Friday, June 15, 2007 12:01 a.m. EDT

I recently returned from Iraq and four other countries in the Middle East, my first trip to the region since December. In the intervening five months, almost everything about the American war effort in Baghdad has changed, with a new coalition military commander, Gen. David Petraeus; a new U.S. ambassador, Ryan Crocker; the introduction, at last, of new troops; and most important of all, a bold, new counterinsurgency strategy.

The question of course is--is it working? Here in Washington, advocates of retreat insist with absolute certainty that it is not, seizing upon every suicide bombing and American casualty as proof positive that the U.S. has failed in Iraq, and that it is time to get out.

In Baghdad, however, discussions with the talented Americans responsible for leading this fight are more balanced, more hopeful and, above all, more strategic in their focus--fixated not just on the headline or loss of the day, but on the larger stakes in this struggle, beginning with who our enemies are in Iraq. The officials I met in Baghdad said that 90% of suicide bombings in Iraq today are the work of non-Iraqi, al Qaeda terrorists. In fact, al Qaeda's leaders have repeatedly said that Iraq is the central front of their global war against us. That is why it is nonsensical for anyone to claim that the war in Iraq can be separated from the war against al Qaeda--and why a U.S. pullout, under fire, would represent an epic victory for al Qaeda, as significant as their attacks on 9/11.

Some of my colleagues in Washington claim we can fight al Qaeda in Iraq while disengaging from the sectarian violence there. Not so, say our commanders in Baghdad, who point out that the crux of al Qaeda's strategy is to spark Iraqi civil war.

Al Qaeda is launching spectacular terrorist bombings in Iraq, such as the despicable attack on the Golden Mosque in Samarra this week, to try to provoke sectarian violence. Its obvious aim is to use Sunni-Shia bloodshed to collapse the Iraqi government and create a failed state in the heart of the Middle East, radicalizing the region and providing a base from which to launch terrorist attacks against the West.

Facts on the ground also compel us to recognize that Iran is doing everything in its power to drive us out of Iraq, including providing substantive support, training and sophisticated explosive devices to insurgents who are murdering American soldiers. Iran has initiated a deadly military confrontation with us, from bases in Iran, which we ignore at our peril, and at the peril of our allies throughout the Middle East.

The precipitous withdrawal of U.S. forces would not only throw open large parts of Iraq to domination by the radical regime in Tehran, it would also send an unmistakable message to the entire Middle East--from Lebanon to Gaza to the Persian Gulf where Iranian agents are threatening our allies--that Iran is ascendant there, and America is in retreat. One Arab leader told me during my trip that he is extremely concerned about Tehran's nuclear ambitions, but that he doubted America's staying power in the region and our political will to protect his country from Iranian retaliation over the long term. Abandoning Iraq now would substantiate precisely these gathering fears across the Middle East that the U.S. is becoming an unreliable ally.

That is why--as terrible as the continuing human cost of fighting this war in Iraq is--the human cost of losing it would be even greater.

Gen. Petraeus and other U.S. officials in Iraq emphasize that it is still too soon to draw hard judgments about the success of our new security strategy--but during my visit I saw hopeful signs of progress. Consider Anbar province, Iraq's heart of darkness for most of the past four years. When I last visited Anbar in December, the U.S. military would not allow me to visit the provincial capital, Ramadi, because it was too dangerous. Anbar was one of al Qaeda's major strongholds in Iraq and the region where the majority of American casualties were occurring. A few months earlier, the Marine Corps chief of intelligence in Iraq had written off the entire province as "lost," while the Iraq Study Group described the situation there as "deteriorating."

When I returned to Anbar on this trip, however, the security environment had undergone a dramatic reversal. Attacks on U.S. troops there have dropped from an average of 30 to 35 a day a few months ago to less than one a day now, according to Col. John Charlton, commander of the 1st Brigade of the 3rd Infantry Division, headquartered in Ramadi. Whereas six months ago only half of Ramadi's 23 tribes were cooperating with the coalition, all have now been persuaded to join an anti-al Qaeda alliance. One of Ramadi's leading sheikhs told me: "A rifle pointed at an American soldier is a rifle pointed at an Iraqi."

The recent U.S. experience in Anbar also rebuts the bromide that the new security plan is doomed to fail because there is no "military" solution for Iraq. In fact, no one believes there is a purely "military" solution for Iraq. But the presence of U.S. forces is critical not just to ensuring basic security, but to a much broader spectrum of diplomatic, political and economic missions--which are being carried out today in Iraq under Gen. Petraeus's counterinsurgency strategy.

In Anbar, for example, the U.S. military has been essential to the formation and survival of the tribal alliance against al Qaeda, simultaneously holding together an otherwise fractious group of Sunni Arab leaders through deft diplomacy, while establishing a political bridge between them and the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad. "This is a continuous effort," Col. Charlton said. "We meet with the sheikhs every single day and at every single level."

In Baghdad, U.S. forces have cut in half the number of Iraqi deaths from sectarian violence since the surge began in February. They have also been making critical improvements in governance, basic services and commercial activity at the grassroots level.

On Haifa Street, for instance, where there was bloody fighting not so long ago, the 2nd "Black Jack" Brigade of our First Cavalry Division, under the command of a typically impressive American colonel, Bryan Roberts, has not only retaken the neighborhood from insurgents, but is working with the local population to revamp the electrical grid and sewer system, renovate schools and clinics, and create an "economic safe zone" where businesses can reopen. Indeed, of the brigade's five "lines of operations," only one is strictly military. That Iraq reality makes pure fiction of the argument heard in Washington that the surge will fail because it is only "military."

Some argue that the new strategy is failing because, despite gains in Baghdad and Anbar, violence has increased elsewhere in the country, such as Diyala province. This gets things backwards: Our troops have succeeded in improving security conditions in precisely those parts of Iraq where the "surge" has focused. Al Qaeda has shifted its operations to places like Diyala in large measure because we have made progress in pushing them out of Anbar and Baghdad. The question now is, do we consolidate and build on the successes that the new strategy has achieved, keeping al Qaeda on the run, or do we abandon them?

To be sure, there are still daunting challenges ahead. Iraqi political leaders, in particular, need to step forward and urgently work through difficult political questions, whose resolution is necessary for national reconciliation and, as I told them, continuing American support.

These necessary legislative compromises would be difficult to accomplish in any political system, including peaceful, long-established democracies--as the recent performance of our own Congress reminds us. Nonetheless, Iraqi leaders are struggling against enormous odds to make progress, and told me they expect to pass at least some of the key benchmark bills this summer. It is critical that they do so.

Here, too, however, a little perspective is useful. While benchmarks are critically important, American soldiers are not fighting in Iraq today only so that Iraqis can pass a law to share oil revenues. They are fighting because a failed state in the heart of the Middle East, overrun by al Qaeda and Iran, would be a catastrophe for American national security and our safety here at home. They are fighting al Qaeda and agents of Iran in order to create the stability in Iraq that will allow its government to take over, to achieve the national reconciliation that will enable them to pass the oil law and other benchmark legislation.

I returned from Iraq grateful for the progress I saw and painfully aware of the difficult problems that remain ahead. But I also returned with a renewed understanding of how important it is that we not abandon Iraq to al Qaeda and Iran, so long as victory there is still possible.

And I conclude from my visit that victory is still possible in Iraq--thanks to the Iraqi majority that desperately wants a better life, and because of the courage, compassion and competence of the extraordinary soldiers and statesmen who are carrying the fight there, starting with Gen. Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker. The question now is, will we politicians in Washington rise to match their leadership, sacrifices and understanding of what is on the line for us in Iraq--or will we betray them, and along with them, America's future security?

Mr. Lieberman is an Independent Democratic senator from Connecticut.