Even Barack Obama seems to be embracing the Republican spin on Iraq. Speaking Sunday on ABC's "This Week," the Democratic nominee for President talked about "enormous reductions in violence" resulting from last year's "surge" of American forces in the country.
Obama's comments come after a bruising Republican National Convention in Saint Paul where speaker after speaker took to the podium and attacked Obama, while speaking of an imminent "victory" in Iraq, praising their nominee, Arizona Senator and former POW John McCain for speaking out in favor of a "surge" when it was politically unpopular.
"American combat brigades who made up the surge have returned home in victory," Senator Lindsey Graham told a cheering crowd Thursday night. "We know the surge has worked. Our men and women in uniform know the surge has worked, and I promise you, above all others, al-Qaeda knows it has worked. The only people who deny it are Barack Obama and his buddies at MoveOn.org."
An increasing majority of Americans seem to agree. American casualties are down, as are the numbers of Iraqis killed in sectarian violence, but these numbers don't tell the whole story. Iraq today remains a horrible, dangerous place. What we are seeing is a calming of the waters in Iraq because its people are exhausted. Five years of violence, without clean water, reliable electricity, health care or jobs will do that to a people. Formerly mixed neighborhoods are now ethnically monolithic, with giant concrete blast walls topped by barbed wire separating communities that had intermarried for generations. In many areas of the country, the violence has died down simply because there's nobody left to kill.
When I hear stories about an American "victory" in Iraq, I think about people like Dr. Ali Falah. A young Shi'a Arab who spoke impeccable English, Falah worked as an emergency room physician in the Northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk. The oil-rich city, which is ethnically mixed and dominated by two Kurdish militias, has been the scene of increased sectarian violence. As an unembedded journalist reporting in Iraq from 2003 to 2005, I used to call on Falah to learn what types of casualties were coming into the ER.
Most doctors left the city in 2006 after one physician was gunned down inside the emergency room, but Falah tried to stick it out. For a time, he was the only doctor on the floor of an emergency room that received 80 patients a day. But in September 2007, Falah told me he could no longer continue working. Someone had dropped a note off at his home in a Shi'ite section of Kirkuk.
"They threw a letter in the house saying the residents who are Shia have to leave the city," he said. "Otherwise, they said 'What will happen, will happen.' So, most of the people left. Me also."
For Falah, that was the last straw. He left for the southern province of Amara, where he's living nearby his fiancée's family. He's given up medicine, saying it's too dangerous and is keeping a low profile in an effort to stay safe.
Falah's story is hardly unique. According to the United Nations, more than five million Iraqis-20 percent of the country's entire population-have fled their homes since the U.S. invasion in 2003. One and a half million Iraqis now live in Syria, while more than a million refugees have gone to Jordan, Iran, Egypt, Lebanon, Turkey and the Gulf States. Others, like Falah, have left ethnically mixed cities like Baghdad, Mosul, and Kirkuk for their ancestral towns and villages. These refugees clearly haven't gotten the message about "victory," because the refugee flow continues. No one has returned home.
The calm we are seeing now will not continue indefinitely, and the longer the U.S. military stays in Iraq the more likely the country is to erupt in horrible violence. In his speech Thursday night, John McCain commended the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, General David Petraeus, as "brilliant." Petraeus, McCain said, has "succeeded and rescued us from a defeat that would have demoralized our military, risked a wider war and threatened the security of all Americans."
But on the ground, some of the strategies employed by General Petreaus are beginning to unravel. The Sunni "Awakening" militias he founded, armed and funded have begun fighting with the Shi'a-dominated Iraqi Army, which is also bankrolled by the United States.
"The Shiite-led government has recently stepped up a campaign to arrest leaders of the Awakening and dismantle parts of the program, whose members receive $300 a month from the U.S. military," the Washington Post reported Tuesday. "Many fighters have abandoned their posts and fled their homes to avoid detention, stoking fears that some will rejoin the insurgency." On Wednesday, Iraqi troops raided the offices of the influential Sunni clerical group, the Association of Muslim Scholars. In a statement, the Association "denounced this provocative and unjustifiable attack" and blamed the Iraqi government for any negative consequences that may result.
Soon, the United States military will have to take sides in this fight, and when it does, American soldiers will find themselves in the unenviable position of battling with groups armed with American weaponry. The longer the United States stays in Iraq, the worse off the country will be when we finally leave. Today, "victory in Iraq" is as far away as it's ever been.