It's Not Over, Over There

In a remarkable and rare display of both caution and good sense, no
one in the Bush administration has begun doing victory laps over the
good news coming out of Iraq.

Yes, the numbers of American troops and Iraqi civilians dying there
have fallen sharply in the past six months, along with the number of
roadside bombs going off and suicide car bombs detonating. Anbar
province is, at last and at the moment, relatively peaceful.

The jihadists of al Qaida in Iraq seem to be in retreat or on a
retreat, licking their wounds and rethinking their strategy. Better
yet, radical Shiite Muslim cleric Moqtada al Sadr's murderous Mahdi
Army militia has largely stood down as he ordered it to last August.

In Baghdad, some neighborhoods have cautiously come back to life;
open-air markets are again thronged with shoppers who for so long had
cowered inside their homes out of fear of death squads and suicide
bombers.

A small fraction _ 20,000 or so _ of the 2 million Iraqis who've fled
across the borders into Syria and Jordan in flight from the terror
have begun trickling home. Some forced by Syria's hardening attitude
toward the Iraqi refugees; others tempted by the good news from home.

All of this is good news; all of this is welcome news.

But everyone from our military commanders in Iraq to Defense
Secretary Robert Gates to the White House and its denizens is being
very careful to avoid premature celebration, and rightly so. Even the
lord of darkness, Dick Cheney, has avoided any pronouncements about
the insurgents being in their death throes.

It would be easy _ and wrong _ to claim that the temporary surge of
an additional 30,000 American troops is entirely responsible for the
scaling back of violence and civil war in Iraq. The beefing up of our
forces helped. What helped even more was a change of both American
tactics and strategy in Iraq that was four years overdue and coincided
with the arrival of Gen. David Petraeus as the new U.S. commander.

But the truth is that much of this reduction in violence is, like the
violence itself, entirely homegrown and thus resistant to the analysis
and understanding of foreigners.

We don't know why al Sadr stood down his murdering militiamen for six
months beginning last August or why, this week, he sent signals that
he may extend the truce. What we do know is that his militia was, at
the height of the killing, responsible for more than 60 percent of
American combat deaths.

We know that Anbar province almost overnight changed from a killing
field for American Marines because the local tribal sheiks had had
enough of the al Qaida jihadists they'd sheltered. When the jihadists
began killing the sheiks themselves and imposing their idea of Islamic
law _ cutting off the heads of barbers, bootleggers and women not
sufficiently subservient _ they crossed the line.

It was easy enough to begin dropping the dime to the American forces
on the jihadists.

More important, the sheikhs decided to stop their own Sunni
insurgency and stop killing Americans. Before, they had refused to
participate in the Iraqi central government and army and police, which
are almost entirely Shiite, and this didn't bode well for the day when
the Americans would leave and the night of the long knives would
arrive.

So the Sunnis began to participate, sending their sons to attempt to
join the army and police. When the government resisted and turned them
away, they signed up to fight with the Americans for $300 a month, a
rifle and some training.

That model has been successfully applied in once-rebellious towns and
communities elsewhere, to the dismay and opposition of the U.S.-backed
Shiite central government.

So let's review the bidding. The key decisions that have led to this
reduction in the slaughter weren't made by us or by what passes for a
national government in Baghdad. They were made by the people who were
happily killing American troops just six months ago.

It would appear that all politics are local, and all Iraqi politics
are impenetrable, byzantine and beyond the understanding of
foreigners.

It also would appear that the prospects of the national government of
Iraq doing anything to meet Washington's benchmarks for progress
toward national reconciliation _ the reason why the troop surge was
mounted in the first place _ remain slim to none.

So there's good reason aplenty for our leaders and commanders to
avoid any victory parades, "Mission Accomplished" banners or "last
throes" pronouncements and instead wait silently for the next shoe to
drop. If only President George W. Bush had known that Iraq was harder
than algebra back in 2003, maybe we could have avoided the whole
thing.