The closer we get to the end of the Bush administration, the more honest the assessments of where we are in Iraq and where we're going have become, at least from some key players.
Consider these comments by Army Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, at this week's hearings on Capitol Hill:
- There is progress, but it's "fragile".
- There's no light at the end of the tunnel.
- The end is not in sight.
U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, the ranking American civilian in Baghdad, added in his own testimony that everything about Iraq is hard, but he said that hard doesn't mean impossible.
A hearty dose of caution and reality was about Petraeus's and Crocker's only option, though, arriving as they did in Washington after two weeks of internecine warfare among Shiite Muslims in southern oil port of Basra and Baghdad and a staggering public display of the shortcomings of Iraq's security forces and police.
With U.S.-backed Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki on scene to command his government's hasty and ill-conceived operation against the street fighters of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr, the world was treated to the sight of more than 1,000 of Maliki's soldiers and officers surrendering themselves, their weapons and their armored vehicles to their Shiite brothers on the other side.
Sadr's forces in Baghdad's Sadr City promptly launched rocket and mortar barrages on the heavily fortified Green Zone, the headquarters of the U.S. military and civilian bosses in Iraq, and of Maliki's government and parliament.
Iraqi and U.S. forces then pushed into Sadr City but were met with fierce resistance and a rising casualty toll.
All of this underscored the fragility of the gains in security from the so-called "surge" of an additional 30,000 U.S. troops, an escalation that will be over by the end of July, much to the relief of Pentagon officials who warn that the Army and the Marine Corps are nearing the breaking point.
The latest outbreak of fighting also should draw fresh attention to the nature and quality of those gains and to the failure of the Maliki government to take advantage of the breathing room bought at the cost of American blood and American treasure to make more than modest political progress in a deeply divided nation of warring sects and tribes.
The images that flowed out of Basra and Sadr City answered any lingering questions about whether the Iraqi Army and police are competent and capable of stepping into any vacuum left by withdrawing American security forces. If the government sends its security forces against their co-religionists, their will to fight seems to evaporate.
Given that sad reality, Petraeus sensibly proposed and President Bush accepted a plan to continue the planned drawdown of the additional American troops until all are gone by mid-summer, and then to hold off on any further withdrawals for 45 days of assessment.
The president said he'd be comfortable with an even longer pause. Right. That way he can kick the can down the road to January 20, 2009, and hand his war over to whoever wins the election.
Bush followed the Petraeus and Crocker appearances with more talk about the fruits of victory in Iraq and the need to hang in there. He said that Iraq was a difficult situation, but that the war wouldn't be endless.
In other words, his predictable prediction was for more of the same until he makes his getaway and rides off into the sunset.
Rather than face up to the shortcomings of his Iraqi allies _ and of his own policies _ the president is now blaming Iran for all that's wrong in Iraq. (Six months ago, it was all the fault of Sunni extremists, whom the administration now claims are on the run.)
It's true that Iran is happily backing virtually every major Shiite group in Iraq _ including U.S. ally Maliki's Dawa Party. Unfortunately for Bush, however, Iranian meddling also helped end the fighting in Basra. Specifically, as McClatchy Baghdad Bureau Chief Leila Fadel revealed, the head of the Islamic Republican Guards Corps' elite Quds Force brokered the ceasefire between the Iraqi security forces and Sadr's Mahdi Army.
It was easy to invade Iraq and topple Saddam Hussein. Easy, too, to let the genie of sectarian violence out of the bottle. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney and then-defense secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and their neo-conservative cheerleaders predicted that our troops would be greeted as conquering heroes, that the war would cost only $50 billion, last only three or four months and implant Jeffersonian democracy in the Middle East.
Now it's harder than Chinese algebra to get out after five long years of war, an American death toll of more than 4,000, an Iraqi death toll numbered in the hundreds of thousands and a cost to the United States estimated at as much as $3 trillion if the war ended tomorrow.
How much more American and Iraqi blood must be spilled between now and January 20, 2009, so George W. Bush can boast that Iraq wasn't lost on his watch, that he never cut and ran and that - never mind - it wasn't al Qaida or Iran that defeated us in Iraq, it was the Democrats?
Joseph L. Galloway, a military columnist for McClatchy Newspapers, is the co-author, with Lt. Gen. Hal Moore, of "We Were Soldiers Once Ã¢â‚¬Â¦ and Young," a story of the first large-scale ground battle of the Vietnam War.
© 2008 McClatchy Newspapers