Outside editorial: Good news in Iraq*

Posted: Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Bush administration and the U.S. military, after four years of unrelenting bad news from Iraq, hardly could be blamed for crowing when the news gets better. And it's true - there have been some positive developments in the war in the last few weeks.

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• The number of attacks against U.S. troops has fallen to an 18-month low, reaching levels not seen since the February 2006 attack on the Golden Mosque of Samarra took Iraq to the brink of an all-out sectarian civil war.

• Similarly, fewer U.S. troops were killed in Iraq last month than in any month since March 2006, according to the authoritative icasualties.org Web site. That's little consolation to the families of the 38 troops who were killed, but a marked improvement over last spring, when 331 U.S. soldiers and Marines were killed in a three-month period.

• The body count among Iraq civilians also is down dramatically. The Iraq Health Ministry reported 758 civilian deaths in October, down from 2,076 last January.

• Maj. Gen. Joseph F. Fil Jr., commander of the Army's 1st Cavalry Division and head of U.S. forces in Baghdad, said Wednesday that the threat from al-Qaeda in Iraq's capital had all but been eliminated. South of Baghdad, the Army's 3rd Infantry Division "owns the terrain," said division commander Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch.

The administration says all this progress was made possible by the surge of 28,500 additional troops, mostly into Baghdad, earlier this year and by Gen. David H. Petraeus' counter-insurgency tactics. And there is truth in that - not the whole truth, but given this administration's track record, some truth is progress.

There was never any doubt that given enough U.S. troops, and commanders smart enough to work closely with tribal leaders and buy their allegiance, the United States could control the military situation. But not until President George W. Bush fired Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld last November was this strategy possible.

And too, while the military goals of the surge have been met, its political goals haven't. Iraq's government still is badly divided and shot through with corruption, incapable or unwilling to take advantage of the opportunity U.S. forces have created. Nor is there much confidence that Iraq's security forces can hold the gains the United States has made.

There's also suspicion in some quarters - the U.S. Government Accountability Office, for example - that the big reason that violence against civilians is down is that so many of them have moved out of harm's way. The Iraqi Red Crescent, a relief organization, reported last week that there are nearly 2.3 million "internally displaced people" in the country - that means people who have left their homes and have become refugees in their own country.

A majority are thought to be Sunni Muslims who have fled Shiite militias, though in the Sunni-dominated provinces north and west of Baghdad, Shiite Muslims have fled for their lives, too. Some 60 percent of the internally displaced people - 1.4 million - are, or were, Baghdad residents who found themselves living in neighborhoods controlled by the "wrong" sect. Many have moved into walled enclaves, protected by U.S. troops, where their sect is in the majority.

An additional 2 million Iraqis have fled their country, mostly to Syria and Jordan, according to the U.N. High Commission on Refugees. Thus, the reason there are fewer civilian deaths may be in part because there are fewer civilian targets.

Still, good news is welcome, even if it comes with an asterisk. Bush should seize the moment with an all-out diplomatic effort for a regional solution to the stalemated political situation. Such an effort necessarily would involve Syria and Iran, but it might help salvage his legacy and, more important, could result in lasting good news for Iraq.

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