Iraq at the tipping pointCAMP FALLUJA, Iraq Every time I visit Iraq, I leave asking myself the same question: If you total up all the positives and negatives, where does the balance come out? I'd say the score is still 4 to 4. America can still emerge with a decent outcome. And the whole thing could still end very badly. There's only one thing one can say for sure today: You won't need to wait much longer for the tipping point.
Either the elections for a new governing body happen by the end of January, as scheduled, and the rout of Saddam loyalists in Falluja is consolidated and extended throughout the Sunni triangle, or not. If it's the former, there are still myriad challenges ahead, but you can be somewhat hopeful. If it's the latter, Americans have got a total fiasco on their hands.
I came out to the Falluja front in a small press pool accompanying the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Richard Myers, who flew in to inspect the toughest problems in Iraq firsthand. Most of the fighting in Falluja was over by the time we arrived at this headquarters compound, although the tom-tom beat of 155mm howitzers, still pumping rounds into the city, was constant. Here are the questions I came with and the answers I took away:
How important is taking Falluja? Huge. Falluja was to the Iraqi insurgency what Afghanistan was to Osama bin Laden. It was the safe haven where militants could, with total impunity, plan operations, stockpile weapons and connect the suicide bombers from abroad with their Iraqi handlers. That's gone. One arms cache alone found here had 49,000 pieces of ordnance, ranging from mortars to ammo rounds. Another arms cache blown up last week kept exploding for 45 minutes after it was hit, a senior U.S. officer said.
What happens next in Falluja? The plan is for Iraqi Army, police and National Guard units to move in, restore order and hold the place so the insurgents can't retake it and voting can be conducted in January. Whether the Iraqi Army can do that is unclear. Don't believe any of the big numbers that people in Washington throw around about how many Iraqi security people the Americans have trained. Those numbers are meaningless.
The reality is this: Where you have individual Iraqi police, National Guard and army commanders who have bravely stepped forward to serve the new Iraq and are willing to lead - despite intimidation efforts by insurgents - you have effective units. Where you don't have committed Iraqi leaders, all you have are men collecting paychecks who will flee at the first sign of danger. The good news: There are pockets of Iraqi leaders emerging throughout the army and police. The bad news: There are still way too few of them.
Then does America have enough U.S. troops? No way. U.S. commanders are constantly having to make hard choices between deploying troops to quell a firefight in one place or using them to prevent one from breaking out in another. With two months before elections and the campaign about to start, Iraq remains highly insecure. And with most aid workers having pulled out, U.S. forces have to do everything. Units of the 1st Cavalry in Baghdad might be fighting militants in Sadr City in the morning, dealing with sewage problems in the afternoon and teaching democracy in the evening. Some of these young soldiers already have three Purple Hearts from having survived that many grenade attacks in Baghdad.
What have we learned from the many insurgents captured in Falluja? A vast majority are Iraqi Sunnis, with only a few foreign fighters. This is an Iraqi Sunni rebellion, but a senior Iraqi official told me that they had discovered Saddam loyalists who were using Aleppo, Syria, to regroup and plan operations.
Bottom line? Iraq is a country still on life support, and U.S. troops are the artificial lungs and heart. At the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit in Babil Province, which I visited, 211 Marines have been wounded in fighting in the past few months. But 180 of them insisted on returning to duty after being wounded. U.S. forces still have a strong will to win.
But another thing remains impressively strong: The insurgents will to go to any lengths to intimidate Iraqis from joining the new government. Too many people, from cleaning women to deputy ministers, are being shot. The insurgents' strategy is intimidation.
The U.S. strategy is Iraqification. This is the struggle - and the intimidators are doing way too well. Without a secure environment in which its new leadership can be elected and comfortably operate, Iraq will never be able to breathe on its own, and U.S. troops will have to be here forever.