Globalist: Insecurity, yes, but Iraq gets a passing grade

Posted in Iraq | 28-Jan-06 | Author: Roger Cohen| Source: International Herald Tribune

Silhouette of a US soldier guarding a base camp in Iraq.

BAGHDAD Are things getting better or worse in Iraq? On that basic question much hinges, not least regional stability in the Middle East and America's eventual ability to withdraw more than 130,000 troops with honor.

There is no shortage of vehement views on the subject, from Iraq as quagmire to Iraq as nascent democracy. But little of the opinion is based on actual observation of the country: Iraq has put blogospheric bloviation into overdrive. Armchair citizen journalists think they can get the information they need from the Web. But understanding still begins with looking into somebody's eyes.

So here are a few observations from the ground, based on the old-fashioned notion that taking a look is where journalism starts, even when the logistics of looking become as complex as on the fraught streets of Iraq.

One of the more important of those streets is the airport road, which was perhaps one of the most dangerous places on earth the last time I visited Baghdad a year ago. It's still a long way from evoking the environs of Zurich airport, but it's safer than it was. Patrols by the embryonic Iraqi Army have slashed attacks. Score one for the upside.

Speaking of Iraq's army, known to the acronym-crazy U.S. military as the IA, it's starting to make its presence felt. Equipment is inadequate - soldiers tend to ride on the back of glorified Korean-made delivery trucks rather than Humvees - but the IA now represents more than Pentagon wishful thinking.

This army-in-the making has no "lift" - Iraqi airspace is an American preserve - and its logistical capacity is rudimentary (anyone know how to fix a truck?), but it can mount counter-insurgency operations and is developing that bedrock of the U.S. military: a noncommissioned officer corps. That's progress.

"We have defeated 70 percent of the terrorists, and I hope to defeat them all by the end of 2006," said Lieutenant Colonel Abbas Mahnal of the IA 1st Brigade, 6th Division, which "owns the battlefield," as American officers put it, in much of western Baghdad.

Mahnal had begun by wishing me "good morning" when it was 9 o'clock at night, and declaring himself "very thank you" - greetings that suggest the difficulties of the U.S. attempt to forge a largely Arabic-speaking army from scratch.

But if Mahnal's estimate of advances against the insurgency must be taken as a loose approximation, there's no doubt the gradual emergence of the IA, the elimination of insurgent strongholds in the north and west, improving intelligence, and the rejection of violence by some Sunnis have had an impact. Baghdad is quieter than it was; quiet here is a measure of headway.

So is the ability to get people to vote in Sunni areas. At Abu Ghraib, a name now synonymous with some of the worst of the many U.S. blunders in Iraq, there were no polling stations in the January 2005 legislative elections, 14 for the October vote on a constitution and 23 in the Dec. 15 election. Those numbers represent a breakthrough in swinging Sunnis behind the new Iraq.

If the minority Sunnis, the great losers from the American invasion, are shifting, it's thanks in part to the shrewd diplomacy of Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador who arrived last year.

A Muslim born in Afghanistan, Khalilzad has proved adept at kissing the right cheeks and playing to the self-importance of the long-dominant Sunnis while making it clear what they stand to lose by not getting into the democratic game.

If in the next couple of months a national unity government is formed, including the Sunnis, that achievement will be in large part his. The Khalilzad presence is a plus.

But getting to see him is arduous. Checkpoints into the Green Zone, Baghdad's walled home to Western officialdom, have multiplied. Just getting a press pass involves about a dozen searches; add a couple to get as far as the Republican Palace, Saddam Hussein's Mesopotamian fascist extravaganza where the U.S. Embassy is still housed.

The checkpoints, and the concrete blast walls mushrooming by the day, reflect the fact nobody has violence under control. That's a big negative. So is intermittent electricity - a reflection of sabotage and more American mistakes.

Oil production has not reached prewar levels, and none of the economic stats - a stable currency, growing reserves - will mean much until people stop living in fear. Nothing like a big explosion to put off a potential investor.

A lot of the explosions are now reflections of growing sectarian violence between Sunnis and the Shiites emerging from a millennium in the shadows to take power, for the first time, in an Arab country. In this fighting lies the potential for civil war: a big minus.

Shiite militias like the Iranian-trained Badr Brigade can be as disruptive as militant Sunni Baathists. A fierce battle is on for control of the Interior Ministry. On that battle depends the struggle to create a police force at the service of Iraq rather than factions. The failure to create a credible national police is another negative.

So, too, is a radicalizing neighborhood: Hamas in Gaza and the West Bank and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran will not help America in Iraq.

Much of Baghdad still languishes. Garbage abounds. Even at midnight in winter the stench of a market in western Baghdad where animals are slaughtered is overwhelming. Why? The guts are left in the road. Many Iraqis remain passive; they do not yet believe in the future. That's not good.

Anyone who is certain about the outcome in Iraq is wrong. The country is not the Bush administration: loving or hating what America is doing there cannot be a blind reflection of partisan politics. "The worst are full of passionate intensity," wrote Yeats. He might have had Iraq in mind.

On those miles of concrete blast blocks, election posters are peeling. Is insecurity prevailing, as the walls suggest, or freedom, as embodied in those posters? It's the latter, by a small margin. Things are getting better in Iraq.