The report by the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, opens the next chapter in the debate about when to bring the troops home
But what happens after that hinges on conditions in Iraq and whether Congress concludes that America is helping to give birth to, if not a model democracy, then at least a moderately stable place—or whether it decides that the effort is irredeemably flawed. In the course of debating the alternatives, lawmakers will be weighing several key factors:
Violence. There is agreement that the surge is, to an extent, working, in that sectarian violence is down in Iraq, according to military figures. There is, however, disagreement about just how to define that sectarian violence. GAO head David Walker testified last week that his office has not been able "to get comfortable" with U.S. military data on that count. That's not surprising. "Sectarian violence is the hardest to gauge, because it's not always easy to figure out why one person killed another," says one senior U.S. military official in Baghdad. "But obviously, when you're not finding piles of bodies in markets and rivers—which was fairly common when I arrived—that's a pretty good sign."
Others have floated the idea that perhaps a downturn in violence is the byproduct of the ethnic cleansing that has already cleared out many mixed neighborhoods in Baghdad and sent some 2 million Sunnis fleeing to Syria and Jordan.
Some residents cite an increased feeling of safety as the result of increased U.S. troop presence and a proliferation of joint security stations throughout the city. The bottom line, though, is not just whether sectarian violence is down, but whether any gains are temporary or not and whether such strides are sustainable by Iraqi security forces when the surge ends.
Politics. In addition to saving lives, the point of decreasing the violence is to help bring about some form of lasting political peace. In other words, bringing minority Sunnis, who once ruled the country, into a now largely Shiite-led government with lingering sectarian resentments. On this front, the GAO report found little progress. In response, Petraeus and others have focused on grass-roots security efforts that they hope will foster national reconciliation.
There has been such progress in areas like Anbar province, where Sunni sheiks have teamed with U.S. forces to fight the Sunni terrorist group known as Al Qaeda in Iraq, as well as in Baghdad. The question, say Walker and others, becomes just why Sunnis have joined up with Americans. Are these partnerships widely replicable? And, perhaps most important, are they sustainable? Just because Sunni sheiks are teaming with U.S. forces does not mean they support the national government. What's more, some say that empowering de facto Sunni militias may actually undermine the national government.
Others argue that Maliki simply needs to be far more accommodating. There have been congressional calls to replace Maliki, but U.S. officials—having concluded that would further delay matters—are working instead to identify Iraqi technocrats capable of filling 17 current cabinet vacancies. "Those inclined toward changing this government," Crocker tells U.S. News, "would do well to consider the pain and time it took to form the current government."