“Iraqi violence down and gov’t confidence rising”

That’s the Associated Press’s headline on this story by Robert Reid, who has been reporting from Iraq since 2003. It represents another milestone in mainstream media acknowledgement of the improving situation there. Reid writes:

Signs are emerging that Iraq has reached a turning point. Violence is down, armed extremists are in disarray, government confidence is rising and sectarian communities are gearing up for a battle at the polls rather than slaughter in the streets.

Reid notes that these positive developments “are attracting little attention in the United States,” where the public is “war-weary” and “skeptical.” I would add, where the tremendous strides that have been made over the last year have been only half-heartedly acknowledged (at best) in our news media. More:

Last month, at least 532 Iraqi civilians and security troopers were killed, according to figures compiled by The Associated Press from Iraqi police and military reports.

Although the number remains high, May’s total was down sharply from April’s figure of 1,080 and was the lowest monthly figure this year, according to the AP count. By comparison, the AP count showed at least 1,920 Iraqis died in January 2007.

American deaths last month — 19 including four non-combat fatalities — were the lowest monthly tally of the war.

Reid praises Iraq’s security forces:

Shiite militiamen are reeling after military setbacks in Basra and Baghdad’s Sadr City districts this spring.

Note that the Iraqi government’s successes in Baghdad and Basra were initially reported in the American press as disasters. Those early reports of failure were trumpeted by our media far louder than news of the ultimate success of the mission.

A new sense of confidence has emerged after recent Iraqi-run military operations against Sunni extremists, including al-Qaida, in the northern city of Mosul and against Shiite militiamen in Basra and Baghdad. ***

Brimming with confidence, Iraqi forces are turning their attention to southern Maysan province, long believed a hub of a smuggling network bringing weapons from Iran to Shiite extremists in Iraq.

Even in this essentially positive AP report, there are probably more paragraphs given over to qualifications and hand-wringing than to straightforward acknowledgement of upbeat developments.

What I really want to note, though, is that the conventional narrative of success in Iraq–that our policies before the surge began last year were were disastrous failures, and that the surge is now making the best of a bad situation–is overstated. Prior to the surge, our policy had been to focus on training Iraqi forces so that they could take over security responsibilities from American troops. As President Bush expressed it many times, “as the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down.”

This strategy was born of a desire to avoid any more involvement in Iraq’s internal conflicts, and any more American casualties, than necessary. It seemed to make sense at the time. The problem was that the growth of sectarian violence and an insurgency fueled by al Qaeda outpaced our ability to get effective Iraqi troops into the field. And in the meantime, IEDs and other attacks were inflicting casualties on American forces whether we wanted to take the lead in pacifying the country or not.

So the surge was absolutely a necessary change in strategy. But it also coincided with the fruit of our several years of training Iraqi soldiers. Currently, Iraqis are taking the lead in most combat operations. So, while giving due credit to the surge, let’s not overlook the fact that our efforts over the previous three years have not been for naught.

Whether the road that Iraq has followed since 2003 has been much longer or more painful than should have been anticipated at that time is an important question about which historians will have much to say.

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