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July 3, 2008 [LINK / comment]

Goodlatte visits the war zone

Congressman Bob Goodlatte is on his way home from a tour of the Middle East, and spent some time with U.S. troops in Iraq earlier this week. It is his third visit to Iraq, and clearly the security situation is much more favorable now. This time he went to Fallujah, which used to be an extremely dangerous hotbed of Sunni resistance. For the past year or so, however, it is largely pacified, as the local people have largely accepted the Shi'ite-led government in Baghdad. It doesn't mean the old animosities have suddenly vanished, and future flareups can be expected, but most Iraqi people seem to realize there is no point to shedding more blood.

In a telephone interview with the News Leader, Goodlatte said he was free to go pretty much wherever he wanted to go in Iraq, unlike his previous visit when the generals advised him to remain within certain secured sectors. He also pointed out that the number of U.S. troops in Al Anbar province (a Sunni stronghold in the west) has been reduced from 36,000 to 26,000 this year. (By comparison, the Pentagon announced in May that the total number of U.S. troops in Iraq is being reduced from a peak of 170,000 to about 140,000.) The article noted that the Democratic challenger for Goodlatte's seat, Sam Rasoul, acknowledged that the "surge" is yielding results, but calls for a phased withdrawal nonetheless. He said the U.S. needs to put more pressure on the Iraqi government, which is the same thing Goodlatte has said. Perhaps it is a good sign that the differences over Iraq war policy aren't as great as you might think. Or perhaps the Democrats simply realize that, in the Sixth District at least, a "dovish" position would be a ticket to defeat at the polls.

Most Americans are vaguely aware that Iraq has quieted down since the "surge" last year, but many probably think that it's just a temporary lull. Well, perhaps. What they may not realize is that the political dynamics are shifting in the right direction as well. One of the most interesting recent developments is that the Iraqi government asked the U.S. to pull back its forces from Sadr City, the impoverished Shi'ite district of Baghdad that has been a bastion of the warlord "cleric" Moqtada al Sadr. The joint U.S.-Iraqi government offensive there and other points of resistance achieved partial success, as Moqtada al Sadr ordered his militias to stand down. It seems that the Iraqis are better able to get cooperation of local people when their own forces do the patrolling on their own, so that they are not perceived as tools of American domination. Thus, we are in the almost-ideal position of declining violence and the local officials telling us that they want to assume a bigger share of responsibility for securing their own nation. This is about as close to "victory" (a problematic term when applied to messy situations of civil strife such as in Iraq) as we are going to get. Let's take them up on the offer!

The example of Basra, the port city in southern Iraq, may be a useful guide for the conduct of the pacification campaign in other parts of the country. British forces pulled out of the city late last year, and their total troop strength in Iraq has dropped from a peak of 43,000 (in 2003) to less than 4,000 right now. After a few days of heavy fighting with Shi'ite militias a couple months ago, the Iraqi armed forces are now in full control of that vital petroleum hub. The local residents have learned to respect and trust their own soldiers. (Those thuggish militias were widely seen as pawns of Iran, the border of which is only a short distance from Basra.) As the Washington Post noted, it may have been easier to pacify Basra than it would be in other parts of Iraq because Basra is almost exclusively Shi'ite, and therefore relatively free of sectarian hatred.

Overall, the vastly improved situation in former trouble spots such as Basra and Fallujah offers real hope for achieving our goals of a stable, self-governing Iraq. How close are we to that goal? In the News Virginian, Goodlatte was quoted as saying "The Iraqis, in the opinion of Gen. Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker, are not ready to take control of their country without our assistance." Well, they may not be ready by our standards, but they are going to have to pull their own weight sooner or later, and when they do, it will be of their own free will, not because of U.S. pressure. It is the perpetual dilemma of all occupation/pacification campaigns: How to foster the development of an autonomous, strong government that is respected but is not hostile to our interests. There is simply no simple, sure-fire way to achieve all of our goals in Iraq, and there will be some awkward trade-offs. In the end, we will have to accept that the new regime in Iraq may sometimes be odds with us. The recent announcement by Baghdad that they will let out bids for foreign oil companies to rebuild the petroleum industry will be a test of our willingness to let them do what they want.

Goodlatte's campaign Web site makes clear our long-term objectives, and the probable consequences of pulling back at this critical moment:

Our goal is not to maintain and occupy Iraq, but to ensure that the country is stable enough to stand on its own and be a beacon of hope and democracy in the Middle East. Stability in the Middle East is imperative to our national security. The long-term instability over decades in this region has created a haven for terrorists and a breeding ground for radical Islamic extremists to advance their terrorist agenda. Pulling out of Iraq at this time would put our nation and the rest of the world at great risk. While I continue to support our mission in Iraq, I think it is clear that the Administration's efforts to achieve the mission have not been flawless. I believe more should be done to press the now established Iraqi government and U.S. trained Iraqi military to take the lead.

In other words, it is not just about patriotic duty, but is a clear strategic choice in shaping the global situation for the years to come.

During the month of June, 28 American servicemen died in Iraq, and the total for May and June together -- 48 -- is the lowest two-month fatality rate since the war began just over five years ago. If that is not a sign of progress in stabilizing Iraq, I don't know what is. However, this also marks the first time that monthly fatalities in Iraq have been less than in Afghanistan. That is where more of our attention will be faced in the coming months...

Posted (or last updated or commented upon): 04 Jul 2008, 1: 23 AM

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