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The facts of the matter

Recent congressional hearings demonstrate that proponents of the Iraq War are missing the basic realities of the situation.

For the past few days, Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker have been making the rounds in Congress, giving their updates on the situation in Iraq. Congressional hearings are generally mind numbing (unless you like watching a senator take 20 minutes to ask a simple question), but the testimony still provided a valuable contrast between those lawmakers who support the war and those who wish to end it. Often, it did not even seem like they were talking about the same war (or even the same universe). The pro-war faction remains blinded to even the simplest realities of the situation in Iraq. No amount of rhetorical spin can change the fact that we need to withdraw our troops from Iraq as quickly as possible.

The timing of these congressional hearings was quite remarkable, really – as Crocker and Petraeus attempted to argue that our surge strategy has been effective, violence within Iraq skyrocketed. The central Iraqi government continues to lose its tenuous grip on power, and hundreds of Baghdad residents are fleeing the city to avoid the fighting; all of this at a time when we are actually lessening our overall troop presence in Iraq because the ultrahigh surge levels of soldiers are not sustainable over the long term. We are no closer to a stable Iraq today than we were a year ago, or three years ago. The reason is simple: there is no military solution to the issues that plague Iraq.

Throughout his testimony, Petraeus cited the success of various military actions as support for the idea that our position in Iraq is improving. On one level, this is an obvious point: If the U.S. military chooses to flood a city with troops, of course violence will decrease. In the fight between rag-tag militias and concentrated American military might, there is no contest. Petraeus, a military man, of course views Iraq in these terms.

But Petraeus himself admits that he might not be the best person to evaluate the bigger picture in Iraq. During Monday’s testimony in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee, he said, “I recognize that the overall weighing of the scales is more than difficult, and believe it is best done, at this point, by someone up the chain with a broader perspective.” He is right, of course; his job is to execute the military objectives, not to provide the overarching justification for our continued occupation of Iraq. That duty falls on the president.

A year ago, President George W. Bush argued that a temporary surge of troops would allow Iraqis the space needed to make long-term political progress. That effort has failed spectacularly. For example, shortly after the American invasion of Iraq, laws were put in place barring members of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party from government positions. During last year’s run-up to the surge, Bush cited reform of this law as one of the keys to political reconciliation in Iraq. A revision of the law did pass – one opposed by the very Sunnis the law was supposed to help. Instead of advancing national healing, the sectarian divide only deepened.

Trouble continues to simmer in the northern part of Iraq as well. That area of Iraq is inhabited mainly by Kurds who run what amounts to their own autonomous state. The Kurds continue to claim rightful control of the oil-rich region of Kirkuk – a claim that infuriates other ethnic groups in the area and makes neighboring Turkey awfully nervous. A referendum regarding the status of Kirkuk has already been postponed once, and the issue is not going away any time soon. And that is in the part of the country largely insulated from the Sunni/Shiite divide that continues to tear the rest of Iraq apart.

Not all of the fighting south of the Kurdish areas is between Sunni and Shiite. Over the past few weeks, rival Shiite factions have begun to fight for control of Iraq’s central government. On one side of the conflict, there is Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and the national Iraqi troops. On the other are the cleric Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army. The cease-fire that had kept the Mahdi in check crumbled over the past few weeks, and the prime minister attempted to destroy Sadr’s militia. That campaign ended in disaster and highlighted how broken the Iraqi government really is.

Instead of routing Sadr’s forces, the Iraqi government’s troops crumbled. At least 1,000 troops and police deserted instead of fighting the militias, and the true number of deserters is likely much higher. The Iraqi government’s offensive was supposed to make a statement about the new strength of the prime minister, but instead U.S. troops were forced to join the fighting to avert complete disaster. The fighting eventually “ended” when Iraqi politicians visited Sadr in Iran, where a cease-fire was reached on Sadr’s terms. Maliki is now reduced to making empty threats about excluding Sadr’s supporters from future elections (which is a power the Prime Minister does not have).

The list of failures in Iraq goes on and on – these are but a few of the most glaring examples. The question now is what do we do about it? The United States has spent a year pouring every available military resource into Iraq, and that strategy failed. We must face up to the hard reality of the situation in Iraq. Our presence is not making things better. Indeed, we are only compounding our mistake.

Staying in Iraq only makes sense if there is the possibility for future improvement. There is not. Proponents of the war are fond of warning us not to “admit defeat,” but they don’t see the larger picture. “Winning,” whatever that means, is not a possible outcome any more (if it ever was). Over the five years we have occupied Iraq, things have only gotten worse. There is no evidence to suggest that another five, or ten, or hundred years would change anything. Whenever we ultimately leave Iraq, we are going to leave a mess behind. Given that reality, we need to get out now.

The other option is to stay in Iraq forever. Anyone who thinks that is a good idea is completely divorced from reality. The last thing we need to do is permanently occupy an Arab nation and further inflame the anger that so many in the Middle East (and around the world) feel.

As is often the case, Sen. Joe Biden said it best on Monday: “The risks of leaving Iraq are debatable. The costs of staying with 140,000 troops are totally knowable, and they get steeper and steeper and steeper every single day.” It’s time to leave.

John Sharkey welcomes comments at [email protected].

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