Too Soon to Cheer in Baghdad
Three years after declaring from the deck of an aircraft carrier that America had accomplished its mission in Iraq, President Bush flew to Baghdad yesterday to make much of two modest pieces of encouraging news — the belated confirmation of the last three members of the Iraqi cabinet and the death of Iraq's top terrorist, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
By now, Americans surely know the difference between a presidential publicity stunt and a true turning point in this ever-lengthening war. If they had any question about which one this was, Karl Rove provided some guidance in New Hampshire, where he delivered the campaign talking points to the Republican faithful: the Democrats could never have summoned the will to kill Mr. Zarqawi. For an administration that is supposed to be rallying a nation at war, it was a revealingly nasty, partisan and divisive moment.
It was good to see Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki finally appoint an interior minister, Jawad Kadem al-Bolani. His job is to purge the Iraqi police forces and prison staffs of the Shiite militiamen who have used them as cover for death and torture squads. That would do far more to bring stability to Iraq than the killing of Mr. Zarqawi, who has been replaced as leader of a group that was just one element of the Iraqi insurgency.
But Mr. Bolani's appointment left us apprehensive. It turns out that he was chosen in a last-minute deal between Mr. Maliki and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a Shiite party that just happens to operate one of those militias. Perhaps Mr. Bolani will demonstrate the strength, independence and patriotism to do the job. Perhaps, if he doesn't, Mr. Maliki will replace him with someone who will. Washington is hopeful. But we've seen this scene before, and it has usually ended badly.
To increase the drama of Mr. Bush's visit to Iraq, Mr. Maliki announced a large military and police operation around Baghdad, involving tens of thousands of troops, to secure roads, stage raids, seize weapons and enforce a curfew. That may look good on paper, but so did the "Mission Accomplished" banner. There are already 75,000 American and Iraqi troops deployed around Baghdad, and very few of those Iraqis can actually carry out such a mission reliably and effectively.
Beyond that, we have been repeatedly told that the already overstretched American forces will be pulled back from the cities and maybe from Iraq itself later this year. How are Americans supposed to square Mr. Maliki's grandiose announcement with Mr. Bush's message that the United States is preparing to reduce its military role?
Meanwhile, millions of Iraqis go without electricity at least part of the day, thousands of families have had to flee their homes, and Iraqi women have seen their rights to an independent life and livelihood significantly diminished.
After too many photo-ops aimed at giving Mr. Bush and his fellow Republicans a short-term lift in the domestic opinion polls at election time, Americans hunger more than ever for a realistic game plan for Iraq and some real progress.