In January, when President Bush announced his strategy to pour more U.S. troops into Iraq in an effort to stabilize the country, the Dallas Morning News concluded that the policy was mistaken because sectarian savagery had gone beyond the point of no return.
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We were wrong about that. Violence in Iraq has been rapidly declining and is now as low as it has been at any point since January 2006. American soldiers are getting the job done.
But it would be a serious mistake to call the surge a success. As U.S. commanders have made clear all along, the point of the surge was to give Iraq's political leadership breathing space to work out its differences. Without political reconciliation, any progress toward stability can only be ephemeral.
With surge forces on track for rapid drawdown after the first of the year, American officials are warning Iraqi politicians that their window of opportunity is closing. Last week, Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte went to Baghdad to pressure the Iraqis to get on with it. Echoing earlier comments by U.S. military leaders, Negroponte told reporters, "If progress is not made on (political) fronts, we risk falling back to the more violent patterns of the past."
The uncertain future of the oil-rich Kurdish city of Kirkuk is a potential flashpoint. The city was supposed to have held a referendum on its political future by year's end, but squabbling ethnic factions have scuttled that possibility. Both the Kirkuk question and the broader issue of Iraqi Kurdistan's control of its oil reserves concern federalism and ethnicity. Their resolution will either help solidify the Iraqi nation-state or further disintegrate it.
Another possible source of conflict: the return of refugees. A handful of the millions of Iraqis who fled violence are starting to trickle back. If the peace holds, more will come. Old neighborhoods have been ethnically cleansed. Where will these refugees live? And will they peaceably give up claim to lost property?
These are the issues that Iraqi politicians have got to settle, and soon. The relatively good news out of Iraq should not obscure an important truth: The absence of violence does not mean peace.
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