The Magazine

The Caravan Rolls On

From the June 7, 2004 issue: Despite everything, sovereignty and elections are coming to Iraq.

Jun 7, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 37 • By FRED BARNES, FOR THE EDITORS
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THE DOG BARKS, but the caravan moves on. This Arab saying has been used privately by Bush administration officials to characterize the progress that continues, despite all difficulties, in Iraq. There's some truth to it. The turnover of sovereignty to an interim Iraqi government--a measure of sovereignty at least--will take place on June 30. Iraqi police and civil defense forces will continue to grow. Creation of machinery for a nationwide election next January will proceed. So will construction of a network of modern infrastructure in Iraq, perhaps at a quickened pace.

It's true a dog sometimes bites as well as barks, and serious threats to the birth of a new Iraq remain, especially the climate of terror that prevails over much of the country today. But it's considerably harder to imagine defeat in Iraq and the collapse of progress toward democracy than it is to envision victory and the emergence of an Iraq that holds together. Despite lingering violence, Iraq is more likely than not to muddle through. This won't happen, however, unless America stands firm and doesn't retreat, even slowly, from its promise of a stable democratic Iraq at peace with itself and its neighbors.

President Bush renewed this promise last week in his speech at the Army War College. But elites in America--especially much of the media and the political class--have lost faith in the prospect of success in Iraq. This same loss of will occurred after the Tet Offensive in Vietnam in 1968, and it led to American withdrawal and defeat. Now, it's the embarrassment over mistreatment of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison that's shaken their resolve, though the scandal has scarcely reached beyond one cell block at one of Iraq's other 24 prisons. The result is a wave of irrational defeatism.

To share the Iraq-is-lost sentiment, one must ignore a spate of good news. The uprising of Muslim cleric Moktada al-Sadr has fizzled. He negotiated a face-saving compromise that will keep him out of jail for the time being. But his movement failed in two important regards. It didn't ignite a widespread Shia revolt against the American military occupation, and it revealed his Mahdi Army as a paper tiger. American troops will not officially control Najaf, Karbala, and Kufa, the cities Sadr had seized, but they will patrol them and occupy the government buildings. The fate of Sadr, who's been charged with the murder of pro-American Ayatollah Khoei last year, will be left up to Iraqis. This is an imperfect solution, since the Iraqis have been unwilling to arrest Sadr, much less jail or execute him.

The Sadr insurrection also prompted mainstream Shia clerics led by Ayatollah Sistani to speak out. Not only did they ostracize Sadr and tell him to vacate the holy mosque in Najaf, but they also disputed his claim that American soldiers had fired on the mosque. Quite the contrary, they said Sadr himself was responsible for damaging the mosque. The White House was understandably thrilled. Sistani, the most powerful religious leader in Iraq, had never before been as active politically. He wanted Sadr sidelined without a huge battle in Najaf that might have transformed Sadr into a national hero. And that's what Sistani helped to achieve.

On two other fronts, the Bush administration seems to be moving in the right direction. The unfortunate retreat from Falluja and the use of former Republican Guard troops to police it won't be a model for other Iraqi cities, senior Bush officials now say. It's a gamble that so far hasn't led to the arrest of any Baathists or terrorists or the relinquishing of any weapons. In any case, American generals who've advocated Falluja as a model need to be told the Bush administration has decided otherwise.

And the proposal that various private militias be deputized for duty as law enforcement officers has also been rejected--and for good reason. Rather than make Iraq safer, it would have made the country subject to warlordism and possibly caused a civil war. Democratic elections--indeed, the creation of a democratic government--would be jeopardized.

Elections will be jeopardized anyway if the dicey security situation in Iraq isn't improved. Sad to say, the Bush administration hasn't done enough to improve it. In his War College speech, Bush cited the "sophisticated terrorist tactics" used by extremists to "sow chaos and seize regional power." But he offered no fresh solution, no new military offensive to crack down on terrorism. The best administration officials could offer is that the deployment of newly trained Iraqi police and civil defense soldiers will make the security problem manageable. We doubt it.