By CAROLYN LOCHHEAD
San Francisco Chronicle
December 05, 2007
If it is, the battleground at home could shift in ways unthinkable just two months ago: President Bush could be off the ropes and Republicans back on offense. The Democratic Congress and presidential candidates could lose their footing on their biggest issue. And U.S. troop commitments and war funding could be set on a higher, more permanent trajectory.
Already there seems to be a shift in public perception. A Pew poll last month found that nearly half of the public now believes the U.S. military effort is going well "for the first time in a long time," up from a third in June. Still, the 54 percent majority who believe the troops should come home has not budged.
Leading Iraq experts who have advised government officials are divided about the consequences of the troop surge. Political reconciliation among Iraqi factions, always the strategic aim of the decision last January to increase U.S. combat troops, is not in sight.
Some analysts believe that the United States is merely helping warring factions arm themselves during a lull in violence that will explode again once the surge ends as planned by summer -- around the time Democrats and Republicans hold their national party conventions. Others say Iraq is on the brink of a long-sought cease-fire that will allow the U.S. military to serve as a classic peacekeeping force stabilizing Iraq and the region.
There is no question that violence in Iraq has ebbed since the troop surge announced by Bush in January reached its full capacity in June with about 162,000 troops. Even Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., chairman of the House subcommittee that controls defense spending, a key ally of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and a leading Democratic opponent of the war, recently returned from Iraq saying, "I think the surge is working."
Violence has receded to the levels of January 2006, before the bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra set off a sectarian civil war between Shiites and Sunni. By many accounts, al Qaeda in Iraq has been hammered. Sunni tribes, many of them former insurgents, have turned against al Qaeda in Iraq in what is called the Sunni awakening.
"The original logic for the surge clearly hasn't worked the way it was intended or planned," said Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and an adviser to Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq.
Yet even as the Iraqi government has failed to use this "breathing space" as an opportunity to reach vital agreements on how to govern the country, "into our lap, almost completely by accident, fell this bottom-up process, starting in Anbar (province), that has now spread through most of the rest of the country," said Biddle, who recently returned from Iraq. "It wasn't part of the original idea of the surge, but here it is."
If these trends continue, the United States could be hitting what he called the long-shot chance of reaching a classic cease-fire, and U.S. politicians of all stripes will have to resist the strong temptation to jeopardize this progress by reducing forces too soon and too fast.
Any cease-fire would require an outside force to police it, Biddle said. "And of course we're the only people who have any serious prospect of playing that role in Iraq. No Bangladeshis or Pakistanis or other U.N. blue helmets are lining up to go get a chance to do duty in Iraq right now."
Other Iraq analysts see something very different happening.
Vali Nasr, a professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and leading Middle East expert, contends that Petraeus has traded the goal of a united Iraq for a temporary calm, without acknowledgement by the administration.
"Gen. Petraeus, despite all his appearances, has completely gone off script with Washington," Nasr said. "He is not following a course that is based on a nonsectarian, united government in Baghdad. He is creating Sunni militias here, Shia militias there. He's cutting deals locally, which in the short run may benefit the security issue, but in the long run is going to, in fact, divide this country much further."
Nasr agreed with Biddle that the lull in the fighting will end if U.S. forces start to leave, "because Iraq is not a functioning country. Its fundamental political issues have not been solved. Everybody has guns and mutually exclusive agendas that still have to be sorted out, and the minute we get out of the middle, there has to still be a fight for the future of their country, which will be joined."
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