A DIFFERENT VIEW: JOE LIEBERMAN

JOSEPH LIEBERMAN Friday, June 15, 2007 12:01 a.m. EDT

I recently returned from Iraq and four other countries in the Middle East, my first trip to the region since December. In the intervening five months, almost everything about the American war effort in Baghdad has changed, with a new coalition military commander, Gen. David Petraeus; a new U.S. ambassador, Ryan Crocker; the introduction, at last, of new troops; and most important of all, a bold, new counterinsurgency strategy.

….Some of my colleagues in Washington claim we can fight al Qaeda in Iraq while disengaging from the sectarian violence there. Not so, say our commanders in Baghdad, who point out that the crux of al Qaeda’s strategy is to spark Iraqi civil war.

Al Qaeda is launching spectacular terrorist bombings in Iraq, such as the despicable attack on the Golden Mosque in Samarra this week, to try to provoke sectarian violence. Its obvious aim is to use Sunni-Shia bloodshed to collapse the Iraqi government and create a failed state in the heart of the Middle East, radicalizing the region and providing a base from which to launch terrorist attacks against the West.

Gen. Petraeus and other U.S. officials in Iraq emphasize that it is still too soon to draw hard judgments about the success of our new security strategy–but during my visit I saw hopeful signs of progress. Consider Anbar province, Iraq’s heart of darkness for most of the past four years. When I last visited Anbar in December, the U.S. military would not allow me to visit the provincial capital, Ramadi, because it was too dangerous. Anbar was one of al Qaeda’s major strongholds in Iraq and the region where the majority of American casualties were occurring. A few months earlier, the Marine Corps chief of intelligence in Iraq had written off the entire province as “lost,” while the Iraq Study Group described the situation there as “deteriorating.”

When I returned to Anbar on this trip, however, the security environment had undergone a dramatic reversal. Attacks on U.S. troops there have dropped from an average of 30 to 35 a day a few months ago to less than one a day now, according to Col. John Charlton, commander of the 1st Brigade of the 3rd Infantry Division, headquartered in Ramadi. Whereas six months ago only half of Ramadi’s 23 tribes were cooperating with the coalition, all have now been persuaded to join an anti-al Qaeda alliance. One of Ramadi’s leading sheikhs told me: “A rifle pointed at an American soldier is a rifle pointed at an Iraqi.”

The recent U.S. experience in Anbar also rebuts the bromide that the new security plan is doomed to fail because there is no “military” solution for Iraq. In fact, no one believes there is a purely “military” solution for Iraq. But the presence of U.S. forces is critical not just to ensuring basic security, but to a much broader spectrum of diplomatic, political and economic missions–which are being carried out today in Iraq under Gen. Petraeus’s counterinsurgency strategy.
In Anbar, for example, the U.S. military has been essential to the formation and survival of the tribal alliance against al Qaeda, simultaneously holding together an otherwise fractious group of Sunni Arab leaders through deft diplomacy, while establishing a political bridge between them and the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad. “This is a continuous effort,” Col. Charlton said. “We meet with the sheikhs every single day and at every single level.”

In Baghdad, U.S. forces have cut in half the number of Iraqi deaths from sectarian violence since the surge began in February. They have also been making critical improvements in governance, basic services and commercial activity at the grassroots level.

On Haifa Street, for instance, where there was bloody fighting not so long ago, the 2nd “Black Jack” Brigade of our First Cavalry Division, under the command of a typically impressive American colonel, Bryan Roberts, has not only retaken the neighborhood from insurgents, but is working with the local population to revamp the electrical grid and sewer system, renovate schools and clinics, and create an “economic safe zone” where businesses can reopen. Indeed, of the brigade’s five “lines of operations,” only one is strictly military. That Iraq reality makes pure fiction of the argument heard in Washington that the surge will fail because it is only “military.”

Some argue that the new strategy is failing because, despite gains in Baghdad and Anbar, violence has increased elsewhere in the country, such as Diyala province. This gets things backwards: Our troops have succeeded in improving security conditions in precisely those parts of Iraq where the “surge” has focused. Al Qaeda has shifted its operations to places like Diyala in large measure because we have made progress in pushing them out of Anbar and Baghdad. The question now is, do we consolidate and build on the successes that the new strategy has achieved, keeping al Qaeda on the run, or do we abandon them?

….a little perspective is useful. While benchmarks are critically important, American soldiers are not fighting in Iraq today only so that Iraqis can pass a law to share oil revenues. They are fighting because a failed state in the heart of the Middle East, overrun by al Qaeda and Iran, would be a catastrophe for American national security and our safety here at home. They are fighting al Qaeda and agents of Iran in order to create the stability in Iraq that will allow its government to take over, to achieve the national reconciliation that will enable them to pass the oil law and other benchmark legislation.

I returned from Iraq grateful for the progress I saw and painfully aware of the difficult problems that remain ahead. But I also returned with a renewed understanding of how important it is that we not abandon Iraq to al Qaeda and Iran, so long as victory there is still possible….

Mr. Lieberman is an Independent Democratic senator from Connecticut.

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