Taking Stock of Iraq

The drop in violence raises hopes for progress in 2008, but it's far from a sure thing.

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But there remain plenty of doubts about the current government's ability to put aside its sectarian leanings, and U.S. officials are losing hope for a government of national unity. Today, the operative word is accommodation, not reconciliation. "It's not like they're going to be reconciled—it's just that they have to learn how not to kill each other," says James Miller of the Center for New American Security in Washington. And so officials are thinking locally. This bottom-up approach means that U.S. forces will continue to work closely with provincial governments and monitor to what extent they can establish and maintain order in their areas—and operate in a way, adds Miller, that there's not a great deal of friction between them.

But until two things happen, friction will remain the status quo in Baghdad, according to U.S. officials. "The Sunnis need to realize they've lost," says one senior military officer. "And the Shia need to realize they have won." The former is beginning to happen, as Sunnis come to the table in increasing numbers. The latter may take far more time.

How this all affects the political calculus on the ground in Iraq will be measured against the political calculus in Washington as well. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is credited with easing some of the administration's Iraq tensions with Capitol Hill by being a consensus builder and a pragmatist. "We're not trying to scare anyone or play politics," Gates said in recent congressional testimony. "That's not the way I do business." This tack has taken some pressure off the Bush administration—but not all. Ultimately, officials in Baghdad know, their options in Iraq will be dictated by progress on the ground.

With Kevin Whitelaw