Coming into his sixth State of the Union address, Bush is politically weaker than ever before, and the cause is clear: Iraq.
The most recent WaPo-ABC poll found that 51% of Americans disapprove strongly of Bush's performance, and a further 14% disapprove somewhat, while only 33% express any level of approval at all. 48% said the Iraq war is the single most important issue they want Bush and the Congress to deal with this year.
And the recent news from Iraq is not good. Saturday was one of the killingest days for US service members in Iraq. Today (Monday), 88 Iraqis were ripped to death in a double car-bomb blast in a Baghdad market. On Monday, too, the US military worked hard to produce some "good news" for the Prez by issuing a report that they'd killed 93 Qaeda-related rebels in a 10-day operation in Diyala Province, northeast of Baghdad. (On the other hand, how many Qaeda-related rebels were there in all of Iraq, before Bush launched his ill-fated invasion of the country in 2003? Considerably fewer than 93, for sure.)
But possibly the worst recent Iraq news for the Prez came from the Shiite holy city of Karbala where on Saturday, some very bold and well-organized anti-US insurgents wearing what looked like US uniforms drove a sizeable convoy of SUVs right into a joint US-Iraqi base, and hunted down the US service members there, killing five and wounding three, before the whole convoy roared right out into the sunset again, unimpeded.
The base in question was a "Provincial Joint Coordination Center" (PJCC), where US troops were co-deployed alongside colleagues from the Iraqi "security forces." Very evidently, what happened there Saturday was a massive breach of security... And the fact the assailants were able to drive their multiple vehicles out of the compound after the attack without incident indicates-- perhaps even more strongly than the fact that they were able to get into it so easily-- that they likely had a number of confederates among the Iraqi security personnel working there.
Which presumably was a major reason why the US authorities in Baghdad did not want to divulge the details of the attack too widely. (Their brief press statement about the incident is here.)
Bush's new "surge" plan for Greater Baghdad-- and the whole of the US counterinsurgency effort in Iraq-- depends crucially on effecting a large increase in the numbers of US soldiers co-deployed with members of the "Iraqi security forces."
But the news from Karbala-- which is only the latest, though perhaps the most serious, incident in which Iraqis co-deployed with Americans have apparently given aid to anti-US attackers-- is likely to make the US commanders in Baghdad, Qatar, and Washington more wary than ever about such co-deployments. "Force protection", that is, the protection of the lives and wellbeing of their own soldiers, has been the overwhelming mission of the US deployment in Iraq all along, and has been pursued even at the cost of risking the lives of much greater numbers of Iraqi soldiers or civilians.
Given the US public's strong concern about US casualties, this emphasis on force protection is, perhaps, politically understandable. In announcing the most recent "surge", Bush has tried to signal that the US public might need to accept that there could be some increased US casualties during its early phases-- but he "promised" us, as well, that these would not last for long...
But all in all, for the Bushites, it's an extremely inopportune time for detailed news about an attack like the one in Karbala to get out and be disseminated to a wide US readership.
And yet, they proved unable to suppress the news. (As is clear from thre WaPo account linked to above, and also from here, this was primarily because the Karbala provincial governor was unwilling to participate in their attempts at a cover-up.)
Which is an indication of the Bushites' large and continuing political problems in Iraq, as well.
Meanwhile, US citizens who are concerned about both the wellbeing of the now long-battered people of Iraq and the lives and safety of the US service members deployed there should be asking the Bush administration's people some very pointed questions about the real prospects their "surge" plan has for de-escalating tensions in Iraq and paving the way for a US troops withdrawal that is speedy, orderly, and total...
In my clear judgment-- and based on all the evidence to date, including the above-- it has none.
Helena Cobban has written about (and often from) the Middle East since 1975. She writes a column on global affairs for the Christian Science Monitor, essays for Boston Review, and has published six books on international issues.
Her personal blog is Just World News. She thinks she may be the only Quaker who's also a member of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
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