Petraeus Reports on Iraq

Sep 12, 2007 | AIJAC staff

Update from AIJAC

September 12, 2007
Number 09/07 #05

The long-awaited reports on the state of the Iraq troop “surge” strategy were made in Washington yesterday by the US Commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, plus the US Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, who dealt with military and political progress respectively. The full text of their testimony is available in pdf form here.

This Update leads with excerpts from Petraeus’ report, in which he notes that the “military objectives of the surge” are largely being met and then proceeds to explain chapter and verse what he means by this, using a lot of statistics. He is also very clear that he is predicting devastating consequences from a premature drawdown of troops or major change in their mission. For the key points on what he has to say about the military situation in Iraq, CLICK HERE. 

Next up, two American political figures from opposite sides of politics, Senator John McCain and Senator Joe Lieberman, co-sign an article calling for people to recognise the reality expressed by Petraeus, and change their views accordingly. They point out that in putting in place the surge, President Bush made a major change in strategy after concluding previous efforts were simply not working. They also outline some indicators that Petraeus is correct. They call on political players not to dismiss the evidence that the surge is working because they have already staked out a position that Iraq is a lost cause, HERE.

Finally, from Iraq, the distinguished American scholar of the Arab world, Fouad Ajami, looks at how the surge is affecting politics on the ground by talking to key Iraqi tribal stakeholders, both Sunni and Shiite, including Prime Minister al-Maliki, and the two vice-presidents, with an emphasis on the political prospects discussed by Crocker. He sees signs that the Sunnis are ready to give up their former supremacism with respect to the Shiites while the latter are genuinely trying to confront their own extremists. For this look at the Iraqi political struggle from a highly respected source,  CLICK HERE.

A Quick Guide to Key Petraeus Points (Excerpts)  

[Prepared by Kathryn Jean Lopez, National Review Online, Sept. 11, 2007]

As a bottom line up front, the military objectives of the surge are, in large measure, being met. In recent months, in the face of tough enemies and the brutal summer heat of Iraq, Coalition and Iraqi Security Forces have achieved progress in the security arena. Though the improvements have been uneven across Iraq, the overall number of security incidents in Iraq has declined in 8 of the past 12 weeks, with the numbers of incidents in the last two weeks at the lowest levels seen since June 2006.

One reason for the decline in incidents is that Coalition and Iraqi forces have dealt significant blows to Al Qaeda-Iraq. Though Al Qaeda and its affiliates in Iraq remain dangerous, we have taken away a number of their sanctuaries and gained the initiative in many areas.

We have also disrupted Shia militia extremists, capturing the head and numerous other leaders of the Iranian-supported Special Groups, along with a senior Lebanese Hezbollah operative supporting Iran’s activities in Iraq.

Coalition and Iraqi operations have helped reduce ethno-sectarian violence, as well, bringing down the number of ethno-sectarian deaths substantially in Baghdad and across Iraq since the height of the sectarian violence last December. The number of overall civilian deaths has also declined during this period, although the numbers in each area are still at troubling levels.

Iraqi Security Forces have also continued to grow and to shoulder more of the load, albeit slowly and amid continuing concerns about the sectarian tendencies of some elements in their ranks. In general, however, Iraqi elements have been standing and fighting and sustaining tough losses, and they have taken the lead in operations in many areas.

Additionally, in what may be the most significant development of the past 8 months, the tribal rejection of Al Qaeda that started in Anbar Province and helped produce such significant change there has now spread to a number of other locations as well.

Based on all this and on the further progress we believe we can achieve over the next few months, I believe that we will be able to reduce our forces to the pre-surge level of brigade combat teams by next summer without jeopardizing the security gains that we have fought so hard to achieve.

Beyond that, while noting that the situation in Iraq remains complex, difficult, and sometimes downright frustrating, I also believe that it is possible to achieve our objectives in Iraq over time, though doing so will be neither quick nor easy.

In December 2006, during the height of the ethno-sectarian violence that escalated in the wake of the bombing of the Golden Dome Mosque in Samarra, the leaders in Iraq at that time – General George Casey and Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad – concluded that the coalition was failing to achieve its objectives. Their review underscored the need to protect the population and reduce sectarian violence, especially in Baghdad. As a result, General Casey requested additional forces to enable the Coalition to accomplish these tasks, and those forces began to flow in January.

Two US intelligence agencies recently reviewed our methodology, and they concluded that the data we produce is the most accurate and authoritative in Iraq.

As I mentioned up front, and as the chart before you reflects, the level of security incidents has decreased significantly since the start of the surge of offensive operations in mid-June, declining in 8 of the past 12 weeks, with the level of incidents in the past two weeks the lowest since June 2006 and with the number of attacks this past week the lowest since April 2006.

Civilian deaths of all categories, less natural causes, have also declined considerably, by over 45% Iraq-wide since the height of the sectarian violence in December. This is shown by the top line on this chart, and the decline by some 70% in Baghdad is shown by the bottom line. Periodic mass casualty attacks by Al Qaeda have tragically added to the numbers outside Baghdad, in particular. Even without the sensational attacks, however, the level of civilian deaths is clearly still too high and continues to be of serious concern.

… the number of ethno-sectarian deaths, an important subset of the overall civilian casualty figures, has also declined significantly since the height of the sectarian violence in December. Iraq-wide, as shown by the top line on this chart, the number of ethno-sectarian deaths has come down by over 55%, and it would have come down much further were it not for the casualties inflicted by barbaric Al Qaeda bombings attempting to reignite sectarian violence. In Baghdad, as the bottom line shows, the number of ethno-sectarian deaths has come down by some 80% since December.

The change in the security situation in Anbar Province has, of course, been particularly dramatic. As this chart shows, monthly attack levels in Anbar have declined from some 1,350 in October 2006 to a bit over 200 in August of this year. This dramatic decrease reflects the significance of the local rejection of Al Qaeda and the newfound willingness of local Anbaris to volunteer to serve in the Iraqi Army and Iraqi Police Service. As I noted earlier, we are seeing similar actions in other locations, as well.

To be sure, trends have not been uniformly positive across Iraq, as is shown by this chart depicting violence levels in several key Iraqi provinces. The trend in Ninevah Province, for example, has been much more up and down, until a recent decline, and the same is true in Sala ad Din Province, though recent trends there and in Baghdad have been in the right direction. In any event, the overall trajectory in Iraq – a steady decline of incidents in the past three months – is still quite significant.

The number of car bombings and suicide attacks has also declined in each of the past 5 months, from a high of some 175 in March, as this chart shows, to about 90 this past month. While this trend in recent months has been heartening, the number of high profile attacks is still too high, and we continue to work hard to destroy the networks that carry out these barbaric attacks.

Our operations have, in fact, produced substantial progress against Al Qaeda and its affiliates in Iraq. As this chart shows, in the past 8 months, we have considerably reduced the areas in which Al Qaeda enjoyed sanctuary. We have also neutralized 5 media cells, detained the senior Iraqi leader of Al Qaeda-Iraq, and killed or captured nearly 100 other key leaders and some 2,500 rank-and-file fighters. Al Qaeda is certainly not defeated; however, it is off balance and we are pursuing its leaders and operators aggressively. Of note, as the recent National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq explained, these gains against Al Qaeda are a result of the synergy of actions by: conventional forces to deny the terrorists sanctuary; intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets to find the enemy; and special operations elements to conduct targeted raids. A combination of these assets is necessary to prevent the creation of a terrorist safe haven in Iraq.

… other tribes have been inspired by the actions of those in Anbar and have volunteered to fight extremists as well. We have, in coordination with the Iraqi government’s National Reconciliation Committee, been engaging these tribes and groups of local citizens who want to oppose extremists and to contribute to local security. Some 20,000 such individuals are already being hired for the Iraqi Police, thousands of others are being assimilated into the Iraqi Army, and thousands more are vying for a spot in Iraq’s Security Forces.

As I noted earlier, Iraqi Security Forces have continued to grow, to develop their capabilities, and to shoulder more of the burden of providing security for their country. Despite concerns about sectarian influence, inadequate logistics and supporting institutions, and an insufficient number of qualified commissioned and non-commissioned officers, Iraqi units are engaged around the country.

… there are now nearly 140 Iraqi Army, National Police, and Special Operations Forces Battalions in the fight, with about 95 of those capable of taking the lead in operations, albeit with some coalition support. Beyond that, all of Iraq’s battalions have been heavily involved in combat operations that often result in the loss of leaders, soldiers, and equipment. These losses are among the shortcomings identified by operational readiness assessments, but we should not take from these assessments the impression that Iraqi forces are not in the fight and contributing. Indeed, despite their shortages, many Iraqi units across Iraq now operate with minimal coalition assistance.

To summarize, the security situation in Iraq is improving, and Iraqis elements are slowly taking on more of the responsibility for protecting their citizens. Innumerable challenges lie ahead; however, Coalition and Iraqi Security Forces have made progress toward achieving sustainable security. As a result, the United States will be in a position to reduce its forces in Iraq in the months ahead.

The recommendations I provided were informed by operational and strategic considerations. The operational considerations include recognition that:

  • military aspects of the surge have achieved progress and generated momentum;
  • Iraqi Security Forces have continued to grow and have slowly been shouldering more of the security burden in Iraq;
  • a mission focus on either population security or transition alone will not be adequate to achieve our objectives;
  • success against Al Qaeda-Iraq and Iranian-supported militia extremists requires conventional forces as well as special operations forces; and
  •  the security and local political situations will enable us to draw down the surge forces.
  • My recommendations also took into account a number of strategic considerations:
  • political progress will take place only if sufficient security exists;
  • long-term US ground force viability will benefit from force reductions as the surge runs its course;
  • regional, global, and cyberspace initiatives are critical to success; and
  • Iraqi leaders understandably want to assume greater sovereignty in their country, although, as they recently announced, they do desire continued presence of coalition forces in Iraq in 2008 under a new UN Security Council Resolution and, following that, they want to negotiate a long term security agreement with the United States and other nations.

Based on these considerations, and having worked the battlefield geometry with Lieutenant General Ray Odierno to ensure that we retain and build on the gains for which our troopers have fought, I have recommended a drawdown of the surge forces from Iraq. In fact, later this month, the Marine Expeditionary Unit deployed as part of the surge will depart Iraq. Beyond that, if my recommendations are approved, that unit’s departure will be followed by the withdrawal of a brigade combat team without replacement in mid-December and the further redeployment without replacement of four other brigade combat teams and the two surge Marine battalions in the first 7 months of 2008, until we reach the pre-surge level of 15 brigade combat teams by mid-July 2008.

One may argue that the best way to speed the process in Iraq is to change the MNF-I mission from one that emphasizes population security, counter-terrorism, and transition, to one that is strictly focused on transition and counter-terrorism. Making that change now would, in our view, be premature. We have learned before that there is a real danger in handing over tasks to the Iraqi Security Forces before their capacity and local conditions warrant. In fact, the drafters of the recently released National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq recognized this danger when they wrote, and I quote, “We assess that changing the mission of Coalition forces from a primarily counterinsurgency and stabilization role to a primary combat support role for Iraqi forces and counterterrorist operations to prevent AQI from establishing a safe haven would erode security gains achieved thus far.”

Our assessments underscore, in fact, the importance of recognizing that a premature drawdown of our forces would likely have devastating consequences.


Listening to Petraeus

The president had the courage to change course on Iraq. Does Congress?


Wall Street Journal, Monday, September 10, 2007

Today, Gen. David Petraeus–commander of our forces in Iraq–returns to Washington to report on the war in Iraq and the new counterinsurgency strategy he has been implementing there. We hope that opponents of the war in Congress will listen carefully to the evidence that the U.S. military is at last making real and significant progress in its offensive against al Qaeda in Iraq.

Consider how the situation has changed. A year ago, al Qaeda in Iraq controlled large swaths of the country’s territory. Today it is being driven out of its former strongholds in Anbar and Diyala provinces by the surge in U.S. forces and those of our Iraqi allies. A year ago, sectarian violence was spiraling out of control in Iraq, fanned by al Qaeda. Today civilian murders in Baghdad are down over 50%.

As facts on the ground in Iraq have improved, some critics of the war have changed their stance. As Democratic Congressman Brian Baird, who voted against the invasion of Iraq, recently wrote after returning from Baghdad: “[T]he people, strategies, and facts on the ground have changed for the better, and those changes justify changing our position on what should be done.

Unfortunately, many more antiwar advocates continue to press for withdrawal. Confronted by undeniable evidence of gains against al Qaeda in Iraq, they acknowledge progress but have seized on the performance of the Iraqi government to justify stripping Gen. Petraeus of troops and derailing his strategy.

This reasoning is flawed for several reasons.

First, whatever you think of the performance of Iraq’s national leaders, the notion that withdrawing U.S. troops will “shock” them into reconciliation is unsupported by evidence or experience. On the contrary, ordering a retreat will only serve to unravel the hard-fought gains we have won.

The recent National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq was unequivocal on this point: “Changing the mission of Coalition forces from a primarily counterinsurgency and stabilization role”–the Petraeus strategy–“to a primary combat support role for Iraqi forces and counterterrorist operations”–which most congressional Democrats have been pressing for–“would erode security gains achieved thus far.”

This judgment is echoed by our commanders on the ground. Consider the words of Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, commander of the 3rd Infantry Division, who is leading the fight in central Iraq: “In my battlespace right now, if soldiers were to leave . . . having fought hard for that terrain, having denied the enemy their sanctuaries, what happens is, the enemy would come back.”

In addition, while critics are right that improved security has not yet translated into sufficient political progress at the national level, the increased presence of our soldiers is having a seismic effect on Iraq’s politics at the local level.

In the neighborhoods and villages where U.S. forces have moved in, extremists have been marginalized, and moderates empowered. Thanks to this changed security calculus, the Sunni Arab community–which was largely synonymous with the insurgency a year ago–has been turning against al Qaeda from the bottom-up, and beginning to negotiate an accommodation with the emerging political order. Sustaining this political shift depends on staying the offensive against al Qaeda–which in turn depends on not stripping Gen. Petraeus of the manpower he and his commanders say they need.

We must also recognize that the choice we face in Iraq is not between the current Iraqi government and a perfect Iraqi government. Rather, it is a choice between a young, imperfect, struggling democracy that we have helped midwife into existence, and the fanatical, al Qaeda suicide bombers and Iranian-sponsored terrorists who are trying to destroy it. If Washington politicians succeed in forcing a premature troop withdrawal in Iraq, the result will be a more dangerous world with our enemies emboldened. As Iran’s president recently crowed, “soon we will see a huge power vacuum in the region . . . [and] we are prepared to fill the gap.”

Whatever the shortcomings of our friends in Iraq, they are no excuse for us to retreat from our enemies like al Qaeda and Iran, who pose a mortal threat to our vital national interests. We must understand that today in Iraq we are fighting and defeating the same terrorist network that attacked on 9/11. As al Qaeda in Iraq continues to be hunted down and rooted out, and the Iraqi Army continues to improve, the U.S. footprint will no doubt adjust. But these adjustments should be left to the discretion of Gen. Petraeus, not forced on our troops by politicians in Washington with a 6,000-mile congressional screwdriver, and, perhaps, an eye on the 2008 election.

The Bush administration clung for too long to a flawed strategy in this war, despite growing evidence of its failure. Now advocates of withdrawal risk making the exact same mistake, by refusing to re-examine their own conviction that Gen. Petraeus’s strategy cannot succeed and that the war is “lost,” despite rising evidence to the contrary.

The Bush administration finally had the courage to change course in Iraq earlier this year. After hearing from Gen. Petraeus today, we hope congressional opponents of the war will do the same.

Mr. McCain is a Republican senator from Arizona. Mr. Lieberman is an Independent Democratic senator from Connecticut.


‘You Have Liberated a People’

Wall Street Journal, September 10, 2007

Iraq – “We liberated the Anbar, we defeated al Qaeda by denying it religious cover,” Sheikh Abdul Sattar Abu Reisha said with a touch of pride and impatience. This is the dashing tribal leader who has emerged as the face of the new Sunni accommodation with American power. I had not been ready for his youth (born in 1971), nor for his flamboyance. Sir David Lean, the legendary director of “Lawrence of Arabia,” would have savored encountering this man. There is style, and an awareness of it, in Abu Reisha: his brown abaya bordered with gold thread, a neat white dishdasha, and a matching head-dress. “Our American friends had not understood us when they came, they were proud, stubborn people and so were we. They worked with the opportunists, now they have turned to the tribes, and this is as it should be. The tribes hate religious parties and religious fakers.”

We were in Baghdad, and the sheikh gave me his narrative. There was both candor and evasion in the story he told. Al Qaeda and its Arab jihadists had found sanctuary and support in the Anbar; they had recruited the “criminal elements” and the “lowly,” they had brought zeal and bigotry unknown to the Iraqis. Initially welcomed, they began to impose their own tyranny. They declared haram (impermissible) the normal range of social life. They banned cigarettes, they married the daughters of decent families without the permission of their elders. They violated the great code of decent society by “shedding the blood of travelers on routine voyages.” The prayer leaders of mosques were bullied, then murdered.

Abu Reisha and a small group of like-minded men, he said, came together to challenge al Qaeda. “We fought with our own weapons. I myself fought al Qaeda with my own funds. The Americans were slow to understand our sahwa, our awakening. But they have come around of late. The Americans are innocent; they don’t know Iraq. But all this is in the past, and now the Americans have a wise and able military commander on the scene, and the people of the Anbar have found their way. In the Anbar, they now know that the menace comes from Iran, not from the Americans.”

Abu Reisha spoke of the guile of the Iranians: They have schemes over the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala, he said. He said the Anbar was in need of money, that its infrastructure was shattered. He welcomed a grant of $70 million given the Anbar by the government, and was sure that more was on the way.

An Iraqi in the know, unsentimental about his country’s ways, sought to play down the cult of Abu Reisha. American soldiers, he said, won the war for the Anbar, but it was better to put an Iraq kafiyyah than an American helmet on the victory. He dismissed Abu Reisha. He was useful, he said, but should not be romanticized. “No doubt he was shooting at Americans not so long ago, but the tide has turned, and Abu Reisha knew how to reach an accommodation with the real order of power. The truth is that the Sunnis launched this war four years ago, and have been defeated. The tribes never win wars, they only join the winners.”

Four months ago, I had seen the Sunni despondency, their recognition of the tragedy that had befallen them in Baghdad. That despondency had deepened in the intervening period. No Arab cavalry had ridden to their rescue, no brigades had turned up from the Arabian Peninsula or from Jordan, and the Egyptians were far away. Reality in Iraq had not waited on the Arabs. The Sunnis of Iraq must now fully grasp that they are on their own. They had relied on the dictatorship, and on the Baath, and these are now gone; there had, of course, been that brief bet on al Qaeda and on the Arab regimes, and it had come to naught.

The one Baghdad politician with the authority, and the place in the pecking order, who could pull the Sunnis back from the precipice is Vice President Tariq Hashemi. There is a parlor game in the Green Zone, and back in Washington, that focuses on Mr. Hashemi. He is at once in the circle of power, and outside of it, simultaneously a man of authority and of the opposition to this new order. He is a leader of the Islamic Party, and a former colonel in the armed forces. He flirts with the government, promising to stand by it, then steps back form it. His caution is understandable: Three of his siblings have been lost to the terror. He is a man of great polish, his English impeccable. There is an aristocratic bearing to him.

He would not call the government sectarian, “I am a man of this government,” he said, when I called on him in a villa that reflected the elegance of the man himself. He questioned the government’s “performance” and its skill. He pointed to the isolation of the government in the region as evidence of its inability to rule. “I don’t question the right of this government to rule. I know I am in the minority in Parliament, I know that they have the largest bloc in our legislature. But ability is an altogether different matter. A more able government would reach an accommodation with Syria, with the other Arab governments and with Turkey. The Syrians may harbor fantasies about the return of the Baathists to power in Baghdad, but they are eager for the benefits of trade and commerce, and their enmity could be eased.”

It is late in the hour for the Sunni Arabs, but the age of the supremacists among them has passed. There is realism in Mr. Hashemi, and a knowledge of the ways of the world. Baghdad’s Sunnis need him, if only because their crisis is deeper than that of the Sunnis of the Anbar.

The loss of Iraq to the Persians is a scarecrow. A great, historic question has been raised by Iraq: Can the Shiite Arabs govern, or are they born and eternal oppositionists? For a man at the center of this great dispute, for the storm swirling around him and the endless predictions of his imminent ouster from power, there is an unhurried quality about Nouri al-Maliki. There is poise and deliberateness in him. The long years in exile must account for the patience. He had waited long for the deliverance of his people; the time in Syrian exile must have been dreary. The Daawa Party had been the quintessential movement of the underground, it had suffered grievously, and sons and brothers of “martyrs” fill its ranks. The men arrayed around Mr. Maliki are resigned to their isolation in the Arab constellation of power. They had been forged by a history of disinheritance. Mr. Maliki is not “America’s man in Iraq.” He had not been part of the American-sponsored opposition groups prior to the war of liberation. He is a man of the Shiite heartland; his peers in the Shiite political class are men of Baghdad, familiar with Western languages and ways. He is through and through a man of his culture, his Arabic exquisite and melodic. He takes in stride the sorts of things said about him by American officials and legislators. He is keenly aware of the debt owed America by his country — and by his own community, to be exact.

“We may differ with our American friends about tactics, I might not see eye to eye with them on all matters. But my message to them is one of appreciation and gratitude,” he said. ” To them I say, you have liberated a people, brought them into the modern world. They used to live in fear and now they live in liberty. Iraqis were cut off from the modern world, and thanks to American intervention we now belong to the world around us. We used to be decimated and killed like locusts in Saddam’s endless wars, and we have now come into the light. A teacher used to work for $2 a month, now there is a living wage, and indeed in some sectors of our economy, we are suffering from labor shortages.”

Though Mr. Maliki had come to power with the support of Moqtada al-Sadr’s bloc of deputies in the parliament, he has given a green light for major operations against the Mahdi Army. He walks a fine, thin line between the American military and civilian authorities, and the broad Shiite coalition that sustains him. There is stoicism in him about the dysfunctional cabinet over which he presides; its membership was dictated by the political parties that had picked the ministers. Three groups of ministers had suspended their participation in the work of the government. He would not be bullied, he said, he had lists of highly qualified technocrats eager to take part in a new cabinet; he would stick it out.

“I don’t believe that there is a military solution for our conflicts; we have to rehabilitate the troublemakers. We don’t arrest Baathists solely because they are Baathists, and the same must hold for those who belong to the Mahdi Army,” Mr. Maliki said.

He had courted the notables of the Anbar, he didn’t say, but I had been told that heavy subsidies had been made by his government to the Anbar tribal leaders; he had gone to the Anbar with substantial sums that had been paid to the sheikhs. But he looks with a jaundiced eye on arming Sunni “volunteers.” He dreads this, and says that this would be a disaster: “We will have come out of a hole only to descend into a deep well.” National reconciliation — the sword of Damocles held over his head by his American detractors — is not easy in a country “without a history of dialogue and give-and-take. This may require two or three years. Grant us time, and you will be proud of what you have helped bring forth here.”

The historical dilemma of his country was there for everyone to see: “For the Kurds, this is the time of taking, for the Shiite, this is the time of restitution, for the Sunnis this is the time of loss. But ours is one country, and it will have to be shared.”

Mr. Maliki recoils from the charge that his is a sectarian government; he notes with satisfaction that Gen. David Petraeus had exonerated the government of that charge. The Mahdi Army had won the war for Baghdad. This has had the paradoxical and beneficial outcome of making that militia unneeded and parasitical. It has given this government a measure of independence from the Sadrists.

“Historically we are winning.” The words were those of Vice President Adel Abdul Mahdi. This is a scion of Baghdad Shiite aristocracy, at ease with French and English, a man whose odyssey had taken him from Marxism to the Baath, then finally to the Islamism of the Supreme Islamic Council. “We came from under the ashes, and now the new order, this new Iraq, is taking hold. If we were losing, why would the insurgents be joining us?” He had nothing but praise for the effort that had secured the peace of Baghdad: “Petraeus can defend the surge,” he said. “He can show the ‘red zones’ of conflict receding, and the spread of the ‘blue zones’ of peace. Six months ago, you could not venture into the Anbar, now you can walk its streets in peace. There is a Sunni problem in the country which requires a Shiite initiative. The Sunni problem is power, plain and simple. Sunni society grew addicted to power, and now it has to make this painful adjustment.”

Mr. Mahdi was not apologetic about what Iraq offers the United States by way of justification for the blood and treasure and the sacrifice: “Little more than two decades ago, in the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution and the Lebanon War of 1982, the American position in this region was exposed and endangered. Look around you today: Everyone seeks American protection and patronage. The line was held in Iraq; perhaps America was overly sanguine about the course of things in Iraq. But that initial optimism now behind us, the war has been an American victory. All in the region are romancing the Americans, even Syria and Iran in their own way.”

For the Sunni-ruled states in the region, he counseled an acceptance of the new Iraq. He looked with pride on his country, and on his city. He saw beyond Baghdad’s daily grief. “Baghdad is the heart of the Arab world, this was the hothouse of Arab philosophy and science and literature.”

Peace has not come to Iraq, the feuds have not fully burned out, but the center holds. The best of Iraq’s technocrats, deputy prime minister Barham Saleh, spoke of the new economic vitality of the provinces, of the recovery of regions once lost to darkness and terror. I brought back with me from Iraq a reminder that life renews in that land.

I attended the judicial tribunal that is investigating the crimes of Saddam Hussein’s cousin, Ali Hassan al-Majid, better know as Chemical Ali, and 14 other defendants being tried for deeds they committed back in 1991, in the aftermath of the first American war against Saddam Hussein. Chemical Ali had been one of the most dreaded “roosters” of the regime, a haughty killer. His attire was either Western suits or military uniforms. On the afternoon I went to watch his trial, he had shuffled in, leaning on a cane, all dressed in the traditional Arab way. The courtroom setting was one of immense decorum: a five-member panel of judges in their robes, the defense team on one side, the prosecutors on the other.

A lone witness, his face hidden from view behind a simple curtain, told of the cruelty he had seen a generation ago. He told of Chemical Ali executing people point-blank, after three Baathist women singled them out; he told of the burial of the victims on the grounds of a vocational school. He stood firm, the simple witness, when Chemical Ali tried to bully and ridicule him. He had no doubt about the memory of that day. He recalled Chemical Ali, he said, in his olive military uniform, and he correctly identified the rank of Chemical Ali. A policeman distributed bottled water to the defendants who once literally owned and disposed of the fate of this country. They were now being given the justice denied their victims.

In our fashion, we have our very American “metrics” and “benchmarks” with which we judge this war and the order in Iraq we had midwifed. For the war’s critics, there can be no redemption of this war, and no faith that Iraq’s soil could bring forth anything decent or humane. Today two men of extraordinary talent and devotion, our military commander and our ambassador, will tell of the country they know so well. Doubtless, they will tell of accomplishments and heartbreak. We should grant them — and that distant country — the hearing they deserve.

Mr. Ajami teaches at Johns Hopkins University. He is author of “The Foreigner’s Gift: The Americans, the Arabs, and the Iraqis in Iraq,” and is the recipient of the Bradley Prize.


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