Although every day in Iraq repeats the endless spiral of bombs in crowded bazaars and mosques each fueling demands for retribution things are slowly getting better. Last month, the number of violent deaths in Iraq fell to 275, down from 437 in June. And that’s a good sign for the security prospects following the redeployment of U.S. forces out of Iraq’s urban areas. In Baghdad, the violence has ebbed to the point that the Iraqi government, whose forces are now responsible for security, this week announced that over the next 40 days, it will tear down the razor-wire-topped blast walls that had for years divided the capital into a collection of fortified, warring Sunni and Shi’ite fiefdoms.
With the level of violence having been tamped down to a degree manageable by Iraqi forces, and with Iraq’s sectarian and ethnic political divisions having become an apparently intractable feature of post-Saddam political life that no amount of U.S. cajoling appears likely to resolve, this may be as good as it gets in Iraq. And if so, why should American soldiers hang around until 2011 in a war costing America in the region of $12 billion a month, and whose U.S. casualty count is nearing 4,500 dead and 30,000 wounded
That question isn’t being asked only by liberal anti-war opinion-makers. It has also been raised by a growing number of senior officials in Washington and U.S. commanders in Iraq. An internal memo drafted by Col. Timothy Reese, an adviser to the Iraqi senior military command, and leaked to the New York Times last month, doesn’t mince words. He writes that it is time “for the U.S. to declare victory and bring our combat forces home.”
The gist of the colonel’s argument is that there is nothing significant that a continued U.S. military presence can do to improve either the delivery of “essential services” to Iraqis, or the ability and inclination of Maliki’s sloppy and quarrelsome Shi’ite-dominated government to reconcile with the Sunnis and Kurds.
In fact, there are a growing number of warning signs that the Iraqi government is no longer under the sway of their American forces that brought it into being. Reese notes a “sudden coolness” being displayed by Iraqi commanders towards their American counterparts after June 30, the date on which the Status of Forces Agreement concluded between Baghdad and Washington last December required that U.S. combat forces withdraw from Iraq’s towns and cities. Following that date, suspects detained by U.S. soldiers were freed by Iraqis. And the Iraqi government openly disdained the recent offer by Vice-President Joe Biden, during a visit to Baghdad, to help mediate in its conflicts with Kurds and Sunnis. Top military adviser Reese likened the relationship between Iraqi and U.S. soldiers to “a father teaching his kid to ride a bike without training wheels, ” explaining: “Our hand on the back of the seat is holding them back and causing resentment. We need to let go before we both tumble to the ground.”
Col. Reese’s point is simple: Despite having more than 130,000 troops there, the U.S. has lost all strategic influence with the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and with it any ability to influence the outcome in Iraq. So why drag it out
Declaring victory, however, requires that “victory” be defined. How could a U.S. pull-out be finessed in such a way that the American people won’t see it as a hasty retreat and a waste of lives Reese argues, correctly, that the 2007 surge and a policy of hiring nearly 100,000 ex-Sunni insurgents has isolated the al-Qaeda inspired extremists, many of them fanatics from abroad itching to martyr themselves by killing American soldiers. He also says that despite the Iraqi government’s corruption, nepotism and ineffectiveness, its security forces are restoring some semblance of order.
There’s no denying that the 2003 U.S. invasion unleashed chaos in Iraq, as sectarian hatreds, Iranian influence and ancient feuds over land and the oil beneath it, produced a storm of bloodletting. But last month, once the U.S. troops began to shrink back to their giant bases, which are like sand-blown, little American cities with pizza and burger chains, they ceased to be the dominant player in Iraq. And if the U.S. can no longer influence events in Iraq, what’s the point of lingering around eating gritty pizza
Read TIME’s Cover Story: What Happens When We Leave Iraq
See TIME’s Pictures of the Week