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Political timelines collide with Iraq realities

While the White House and Congress appear headed toward an endgame on the Iraq war, an entirely different conflict is being waged in the streets of Baghdad, where commanders are biding time to see if a new U.S. approach will make Iraqi capital safer.
A Marine with the 2nd Platoon, E Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines, pauses for some rest in a building during Operation Zaidon II on March 22 in Zaidon, Iraq.
A Marine with the 2nd Platoon, E Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines, pauses for some rest in a building during Operation Zaidon II on March 22 in Zaidon, Iraq. Cpl. Samuel D. Corum / AP
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

There are two Iraq wars being waged, according to military officers on the ground and defense experts: the one fought in the streets of Baghdad, and the war as it is perceived in Washington.

Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, who took over as the top U.S. commander in Iraq in February, cited the disparity last week. "The Washington clock is moving more rapidly than the Baghdad clock," he said in a television interview. "So we're obviously trying to speed up the Baghdad clock a bit and to produce some progress on the ground that can, perhaps . . . put a little more time on the Washington clock."

While Washington appears headed toward a political endgame on Iraq, with the White House and Congress sparring over benchmarks and pullout dates, the war on the ground is at an ebb tide. All sides -- including U.S. military strategists and Iraqi sectarian leaders and insurgents, as well as regional players such as Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Turkey -- are waiting to see whether the new U.S. approach to make the Iraqi capital safer will work. Soldiers on the ground tend to see the Washington debate as irrelevant, and the perspective of many politicians in Washington is that the military schedule is simply too slow.

"The time scale to succeed is years," said John J. Hamre, a former deputy defense secretary, while "the time scale for tolerance here is 12 months for Democrats and 18 months for Republicans."

Ratcheting back expectations
One result of this disparity is the emergence of radically different views of the impact of the new strategy, which has been referred to as a "surge" because it sends more troops into Iraq but which is more noteworthy for moving U.S. troops off large, isolated bases and into smaller outposts across the capital.

President Bush said last month that "there's been good progress," and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) concluded on a trip to Iraq last week that "we have a new strategy that is making progress." But officers in Iraq tend to be far more cautious. Petraeus himself has repeatedly said it is too early to tell whether the new strategy is showing sustained progress. He and others say they will be able to assess by this fall whether they are succeeding or failing. If so, the current debate over a possible 2008 withdrawal could prove beside the point.

An official in Iraq warned that executing the new approach will take time -- perhaps more than Washington is willing to give. "Early signs are very encouraging -- huge drop in sectarian killings in Baghdad, return of thousands of refugee families," he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity so that he could be candid. "But there is no way we can defeat this insurgency by summer. I believe we can begin to turn the tide by then, and have an idea if we are doing it. To defeat it completely is a five-to-10-year project, minimum -- and rushing it along to meet a D.C. timeline is rushing to failure."

‘A very messy divorce’
An Army officer who has served in Iraq and is now back in the United States summed up the situation by saying that "we are witnessing the throes . . . of a very messy divorce" between the politics of the war and the way it is being fought. The "kids" scarred by the breakup, he predicted, will be the Iraqi people and the U.S. Army and Marine Corps.

In addition to the new military strategy, a new team is taking over the U.S. effort in Iraq. For the first time since 2004, there is a fresh U.S. commander in Iraq, with Petraeus replacing Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr. He is working with a new No. 2 commander, Army Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, and a new U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan C. Crocker. There are changes at the Pentagon -- a new Army chief of staff and Donald H. Rumsfeld's replacement, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, as well as a vacancy for Army secretary -- and at Central Command, the U.S. military command responsible for the Middle East. The replacements amount to the biggest personnel change of the war -- and the new players are still settling in.

Mixed signs of progress
In Baghdad, there are a few signs of improvement, but they tend to be offset by worrisome indications elsewhere in Iraq. Sectarian killings are down about 50 percent since the new strategy began, according to U.S military spokesmen. Car bombings are up, but so are tips from Iraqis. It is impossible to know how much of the decrease in violence is attributable to the biggest Shiite militia -- radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army -- deciding to lie low. In addition, noted a U.S. Army officer preparing for his third Iraq tour, when one side in a war alters its tactics, the other side usually will take time to study the shift and assess vulnerabilities before renewing attacks. Also, in Anbar province, there are solid indications of tribal leaders turning against al-Qaeda extremists.

But, reported one Special Forces veteran who has worked in Iraq in the military and as a civilian, "the surge in Baghdad is pushing the sectarian violence to other parts of Iraq." That is one reason for the increased fighting in nearby Diyala province that led U.S. commanders to send in a Stryker battalion that was part of the troop buildup. Likewise, the Marine Corps' new success in Anbar appears to have forced some al-Qaeda fighters to shift to Mosul, Baqubah and Tall Afar, which in 2006 was hailed as a U.S. success story but in the past month has been the scene of a horrific truck bombing and revenge killings by Shiite police. Also, a military intelligence officer warned of other troubling signs outside Baghdad: Kirkuk edging closer to explosion, the Turks increasingly unhappy with Kurdish activity, and an impending British drawdown in the south that could make U.S. supply lines from Kuwait more vulnerable.

Another military intelligence veteran of Iraq said he thinks the Petraeus approach is getting some results, but he predicted that violence will spike this summer, in part as an attempt by Iraqi factions to influence the U.S. political debate. The bottom line, said Jeffrey White, a former Defense Intelligence Agency analyst, is that by this fall the picture may be mixed. "Things could look substantially brighter in Baghdad but much worse elsewhere," said White, who is now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

The most that can happen by mid-summer, say senior officers in Iraq, is that the U.S. military might begin to know whether the new approach is working or failing.

"It will be months, not days or weeks, before we see real indicators of progress," Petraeus said in his interview with PBS's Jim Lehrer last week.

Still waiting for a reconciliation
Also, officers say, major questions remain about the sustainability of any positive momentum. Military operations can buy time but cannot solve the basic problem in Iraq: the growing threat of a civil war. The U.S. government keeps pushing for reconciliation, but there are few signs of movement toward that goal. "Nothing is going to work until the parties are ready to compromise, and I don't see any indicators yet that they are," said A. Heather Coyne, who has worked in Iraq both as a military reservist and as a civilian. "Until then, any effect of the surge will be temporary."

Larry Diamond, a Stanford University professor who worked with the U.S. occupation authority and has been critical of the Bush administration's approach, agreed: "If we don't get a political breakthrough, nothing we do militarily is going to work."

A political breakthrough in Washington already happened, Hamre said, when November's elections turned into a referendum on the war. "The American people have been waiting to hear how we were going to win in Iraq, and they never heard that, so they turned against it," he said. "But the political evolution is moving much faster here than events there."

Yet, with a new approach underway in Baghdad, the Washington debate is largely irrelevant to the concerns of the soldier on the ground, said the Army officer who recently returned from Baghdad. "All the talk about pullouts, votes and budgets really doesn't mean much to that 18-year-old with his body armor driving across Iraq worried about IEDs," he said, referring to roadside bombs. "For him, life consists of trying to survive for 365 days to get back home -- only to know he'll have to come back again."