THE TESTIMONY DELIVERED YESTERDAY by General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker provides an opportunity to assess progress in Iraq since last September (the last time the two men were in Washington, D.C.), and evaluate what is needed moving forward. Last fall's testimonies noted the initial improvements that resulted from the U.S. troop "surge," which reached its full deployment only three months prior to the September testimony. Seven months have now passed (ten months since the surge troops were fully deployed), and General Petraeus testified yesterday that Iraq's security situation has continued to improve: "Security in Iraq is better than it was when Ambassador Crocker and I reported to you last September, and it is significantly better than it was 15 months ago when Iraq was on the brink of civil war."
A combination of factors has produced the improved situation. In addition to the increase in U.S. forces through the surge, the change in U.S. counterinsurgency strategy has been significant. Related to that shift in strategy, the Awakening movement and the Sons of Iraq have had a cognizable impact by helping Iraqis take the security situation into their own hands. The Mahdi Army's ceasefire has reduced levels of violence, as has the fact that al Qaeda in Iraq's barbarous activities alienated it from the Iraqi population. And the much-maligned Iraqi security forces have increased in number and capability. But the picture painted yesterday was not entirely positive: as General Petraeus emphasized, progress in Iraq has been "significant but uneven."
ONE TOPIC OF CELEBRATION in the testimony delivered last September was the success of the Anbar Awakening movement. General Petraeus noted at the time that "today, [Anbar Province] is a model of what happens when local leaders and citizens decide to oppose al-Qaeda and reject its Taliban-like ideology." Just days after that testimony, the Awakening was dealt a significant blow when its founder, Abdul Sattar al-Rishawi, was assassinated. While this could have been devastating for the group, Abdul Sattar's brother Ahmed Abu Risha has managed to salvage the movement; today there are branches of the Awakening movement throughout Iraq.
Since September, the Awakening movement has continued to root out al Qaeda and establish local security. General Petraeus said in yesterday's testimony: "Awakenings have prompted tens of thousands of Iraqis--some, former insurgents--to contribute to local security as so-called 'Sons of Iraq.'" Currently, more than 91,000 Sons of Iraq (both Sunni and Shia) are actively working to build security at a local level. While there are significant question marks about some U.S. allies who fall under the Sons of Iraq program, such as Hajji Abu Abed, the program has on the whole bolstered stability and helped Coalition forces attain valuable intelligence on weapons caches and terrorist activity. "We have already found more caches in 2008 than we found in all of 2006," General Petraeus said yesterday, placing the number of caches found and cleared at 2,837 countrywide.
General Petraeus also noted improvements in the Iraqi security forces, stating that "Iraq has also conducted a surge, adding well over 100,000 additional soldiers and police to the ranks of its security forces in 2007." Today over 100 Iraqi combat battalions are "capable of taking the lead in operations."
THOUGH THE U.S.'S LOCAL ALLIES continue to gain in strength, Iran's influence has plagued Coalition and Iraqi forces. The U.S. military only began seriously addressing this influence in early 2007. Since then, the military has captured several key Iranian operatives working in Iraq, including a Hezbollah commander assigned to build "Special Groups" (the name for the Iranian-supported cells largely culled from Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army), a senior Qods Force officer, and the leader and tactical commander of the Qazali network. Despite these captures, Ambassador Crocker stated that "Iran continues to undermine the efforts of the Iraqi government to establish a stable, secure state through the authority and training of criminal militia elements engaged in violence against Iraqi security forces, coalition forces and Iraqi civilians."