Statements and Speeches

Iraq makes progress, but time is running out

Op-Ed in The News Journal, Wilmington, Del.

Jul 05 2007

I recently returned from my second trip to Iraq in 18 months, arriving back in Delaware in time to send off 150 members of a military police unit from the Delaware National Guard.

The situation awaiting them remains daunting and dangerous. The assessment I heard there from Gen. David Petraeus and ambassador Ryan Crocker was sobering at best, but not entirely devoid of hope.

Americans, and especially Iraqis, continue to die in large numbers, and the number of seriously wounded are even higher. The effects of long, multiple deployments -- some troops are on their third -- are taking a toll on them and their families. Our military is stretched thin, and some experts say it may be at a breaking point by next spring.

On the political front, the Iraqi Parliament is besieged by profound, seemingly irreconcilable divisions. Despite months of American prodding, Iraqi lawmakers have yet to agree on one of the major issues before them.

Look at the facts:

Despite some progress, they have not adopted a definitive plan to share the country's oil wealth. In fact, in a country with the world's second-largest oil reserves, output remains pitifully low. As temperatures reach 120 degrees, there is often no electricity in Baghdad.

The government does not have a plan for power-sharing among Iraq's three major factions. It has either blocked or not yet figured out how to incorporate former Baathists into Iraq's Shiite-led government, further fueling the devastating Sunni insurgency.

Proposed changes to the Iraqi constitution, adopted almost two years ago, have not materialized. While there's discussion about provincial and municipal elections, even the legislation mandating them has yet to be approved by the full parliament.

Little progress has been made by Prime Minister Maliki's government to dismantle the mostly Shiite militias, many of which have infiltrated Iraq's police forces. And the Iraqi army -- although functioning at a higher level than ever before -- is not yet fully or independently operational.

However, despite the unrelenting flow of bad news, all is not gloom and doom in Iraq, according to the two dozen members of the Delaware National Guard I met in Baghdad. They expressed frustration that news from Iraq is overwhelmingly negative and that positive developments are either not reported or drowned out by the negative.

We witnessed some successes, however modest. For the first time, our congressional delegation was able to go outside the International Zone onto Haifa Street -- a major thoroughfare -- initially in armored personnel carriers and later on foot.

City streets

We saw what our troops -- in addition to providing security -- are doing there: renovating apartment buildings and rebuilding schools. "I'm a city planner," the brigade commander said as we walked along Haifa Street. A curfew had just been lifted in Baghdad. The calm we experienced was in stark contrast to the fighting that took place there the past year.

Last year, in a different part of Iraq, the Askariya mosque was bombed, unleashing murder and mayhem. A second bombing of that mosque just last month elicited a different response: Prime Minister Maliki visited it, denounced the bombing, promised retribution and imposed an immediate curfew.

His quick action won praise from Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds and Americans alike. The Iraqis deserve that kind of leadership.

An even more dramatic turnaround has occurred in Anbar province, the large Sunni-dominated province where violence has dominated since the toppling of Saddam Hussein. Earlier this year, Sunni tribal leaders redirected their fire away from American troops and toward al-Qaida in Iraq. Remarkably, this joint effort by local tribal leaders and coalition forces has succeeded in driving virtually all al-Qaida out of Anbar.

Efforts are now under way to replicate this minor miracle in other Iraqi provinces. Gen. Petraeus believes this strategy is promising, but not a silver bullet. The June 25 bombing of a gathering of U.S.-allied tribal sheiks at Baghdad's Mansour Hotel reminds us how fragile an alliance this is.

As calm has come to Anbar, the U.S. Agency for International Development is rebuilding infrastructure and Iraq's economy, while the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has restarted several major public works projects, including a wastewater treatment plant near Fallujah. But a serious question remains: Can our forces -- in concert with the Iraqis -- hold these areas this time and prevent the insurgents from returning again?

In September, Gen. Petraeus will report to Congress on progress made on the 18 benchmarks laid out in legislation Congress passed last month funding our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. I agree with him that a military solution is not the answer. Iraq must be secured through a political solution that equitably incorporates Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds. However, one of the biggest hurdles we face in Iraq is the unwillingness or inability of its leaders to make tough decisions.

One Iraqi leader with whom we met acknowledged there's little sense of urgency to take bold steps to avert a full-blown civil war.

Some Iraqis act like this is the first quarter of a four-quarter basketball game. They're wrong. We're well into the fourth quarter. The shot clock is running, and half the Iraq team remains on the sidelines arguing about the rules, who's going into the game and what play to call. They must get on the court and play like a team. If they do, their country can be saved. If they don't, no surge will save them.

A year from now, there will likely be some U.S. military presence in Iraq. It may be appropriate for us to protect American assets there, continue training Iraqi troops and police forces, join them in counter-insurgency operations against al-Qaida, and help them secure their borders. But these limited missions do not require 160,000 American troops.

It seems to me the most important decision facing Iraqis right now -- whether they want a country -- is out of our hands. We can't decide that for them. We can only support their efforts. And time is running out.