Saturday, December 17, 2005

High Tide

The population in Iraq is shifting toward our side all across the spectrum of opinion.

When we first invaded Iraq and overthrew the Baathist regime of Saddam, we faced a mixed reaction from the population. The Kurds were happy that Saddam was deposed and were pro-American; the Shias were happy that Saddam was deposed (and yes, they did throw flowers as our troops marched in) but were suspicious of America after the betrayal of 1991 and many were fairly neutral, watching the fight; the Sunnis who weren't favored by the Baathists were unsure of what to believe, generally distrustful of the American effort that elevated the Shia, and watched the fight; and the Baathists were angry with America and determined to regain power.

I noted early in the insurgency that we needed to keep the pro-Americans happy; move the neutrals to our side; move the hostiles to neutrality; and keep that process going (sorry, but I'm not up to wading through my old archives right now).

During the first stage of the insurgency, American forces fought the Baathists and gradually ground them down, capturing Saddam in December 2003 and watching the Baathists dwindle through February 2004. The Kurds kept their enclave safe and watched, still pro-American. But the Shias were not fully with us despite our welcome removal of Saddam.

But the fight heated up in March and exploded in April with the jihadi revolt in Fallujah and the Sadr-led Shia revolt. The military forces raised from Iraqis for a more benign security environment largely collapsed in this twin offensive. We were on our own to fight the jihadis in Fallujah where we eventually surrounded the city and left it an enemy enclave, and the Sadr people who we defeated in a careful campaign that did not move Shias from neutrality to hostility. The Baathists and jihadis counted on this to make their fight to restore a Sunni dictatorship a national resistance to American occupation. This enemy offensive neither hurt us like the Sepoy Mutiny nor broke our morale like the Tet Offensive. We endured and went on the offensive. Yet as fighting raged, the Shias routinely blamed America for the terror bombings. The spring of 2004 was the period I had some worries that the enemy could carry out their own attitude shift of the people to their side. But by June 2004, I thought I could see the seeds of the enemy defeat as the jihadis with outside support began to alienate the Shias and then even the Sunnis.

We revamped our training and began to train Iraqis for serious counter-insurgency. As the jihadis bombed and attacked, we began to see the Shias stop blaming us for terror attacks and build anger against the jihadis and the Sunni Baathists who allied with the killers. The Shias moved toward us and joined us in fighting the enemy enthusiastically. From neutrality they became our solid allies. The August 2004 Sadr second revolt was put down with the support of the Shia clerics, and movement in attitudes continued.

By November 2004 when we finally retook Fallujah, the atrocities and depraved cruelty of the jihadi enclave seems to have been a reality check for the Sunnis. Even as the refugees of the defeated Sunnis spread havoc in Mosul and elsewhere in December 2004, when Iraqis went to the polls in January 2005, the Shias were clearly with us; the Kurds remained pro-American; and the Sunnis stood aside and did not vote. By October, the Sunnis tested the waters in areas under government and Coalition control where they voted. Against the proposed constititon to be sure--but they voted where they could. And the growing tide of Iraqi units trained and equipped well enough and manned by recruits eager to defend their country were key to creating this security along with American units that were freed for offensive action in al Anbar province.

Yet through it all, our press painted a picture of disaster following disaster, convincing more and more Americans that we were losing when we have been winning:

There is just an insane amount of handwringing today, all driven by the deluge of round-the-clock media coverage. News organizations can't get the cameras to the flames in Iraq fast enough and day after day the public reacts emotionally to the images put before them through the lens of a soda straw. How many times have we heard people come back from Iraq and talk about how different reality is from what they've seen on TV and read in the papers?

And how many times have we heard members of the press talk about their duty to inform and educate the citizenry about issues? In the matter of Iraq, that means news organizations have an obligation to their readers and viewers to put events in perspective and provide historical context. They have failed the public miserably in that obligation.

The public bears its share of the burden, too. As Thomas Sowell wrote earlier this week: "Utter ignorance of history enables any war with any casualties to be depicted in the media as an unmitigated disaster."

What seems clear now, after the December elections, is that this earlier refusal by the Sunnis to vote was not because they had moved into the anti-American column but because they were still in the neutral range--too afraid to join the new government:

The biggest story of this election, apart from its obvious milestone character, is the staggeringly high Sunni turnout. In October we were being assured, by the usual experts, that the passage of the constitutional referendum was a disaster, another of many final nails in the coffin of Iraqi democracy: The Sunnis would now never participate in the electoral process. It turns out that they did participate, and they did so with eager anticipation that through the new democratic process their voices could be heard and their interests protected.

It also turns out that one of the major reasons Sunnis had not participated before was fear that they would be killed by terrorists and insurgents. This time, with 160,000 American troops and thousands of newly trained Iraqi soldiers and police, there was a sense of security. "Last time, if you voted, you died," Abdul Jabbar Mahdi, a Sunni, told the Times's Dexter Filkins. "God willing, this election will lead to peace." As Filkins notes, "Comments from Sunni voters, though anecdotal, suggested that a good number of them had stayed away from the polls in January not because they were disenchanted with the democratic process, but because they were afraid of being killed."

So now, with the fear factor reduced, we apparently have the sight of the non-Baathist Sunnis at least moving from the neutral column to the pro-government column. Not necessarily pro-ruling party but in favor of participating in the democratic process to determine the legitimate government under the rules set by the government.

There are still the Baathists who must be split and brought in or defeated; the foreign jihadis who are small in number but the most bloody minded; and the remaining Shias who control militias and may look to Iran for help in creating a minority-mullah regime contrary to the wishes of the Iraqi majority. I think we have not heard the last of Moqtada al Sadr on this front.

Victory in Iraq will be shock to many who have bought the myths of Iraq hook, line, and sinker.

So this election may very well represent another step in moving the elements of the various blocks of the population away from resistance and towards supporting the government. I'm not going to be so bold as to predict a sudden collapse of the enemy right now. But I wouldn't rule it out, either.

It is truly amazing that some in our country who have been biting their tongues to avoid shouting out their anti-war sentiments deep in their hearts have chosen this moment in time to go public with their true views.