On track in Iraq

The number of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq in May (19) was the lowest since we invaded in early 2003. Moreover, this low-water mark was set during a month in which successful military operations were carried in Sadr City and Mosul. The paradox, if any, is resolved by the equally good news that Iraqi soldiers took the lead in both venues.

The relatively low death count in May follows an April in which the death total reached 52, the highest since September 2007. This spike (which still did not approach the normal figures for the second half of 2006 and the first half of 2007) had several readers emailing to accuse me of viewing the world through ideologically-tinted glasses in claiming, modestly I had thought, that we were making significant military progress in Iraq. I haven’t received any such emails lately.

If we look back on the past two months, we see that the combination of U.S. and Iraqi forces achieved significant (though potentially reversible) successes in Basra, Sadr City and to a lesser degree Mosul, while the U.S. fatality rate for the two months remained well below the normal level. No wonder the Washington Post finds that we may now be on the verge of a “tipping point” that “sees the Iraqi government and army restoring order in almost all of the country, dispersing both rival militias and the Iranian-trained ‘special groups’ that have used them as cover to wage war against Americans.”

The Post also warns that it is too early to celebrate, and it is correct about this, as well. The biggest potential problem, as I see it, is neither military nor political in the narrow sense that the Democrats like to talk about (lack of “reconciliation” and failure to meet mostly artificial benchmarks). In my view, the thing to keep one’s eyes on is the state of economy. If the comparative respite from violence enables the Iraqi people (with the help of their government and ours) to achieve substantial economic progress, then there’s little reason to believe that the Sunni and Shiite murderers will regain a foothold, at least not unless the U.S. ends its effective military presence prematurely. If not, then one can imagine the Shiite militias and perhaps some of the worst of the Baathist elements (but probably not al Qaeda) making a comeback. After all, the militias for the most part were not disarmed or decisively beaten in battle.

Fortunately, there’s good reason to expect that substantially reduced levels of violence will be reflected in vastly improved economic conditions. (In this regard, it’s encouraging to read that Iraqi oil production reached a post-invasion high water mark in May). However, this is merely a reasonable expectation, not a guarantee.

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