What Petraeus didn’t say

The recent assault on Basra showed we’re staring into an abyss.

The American public is tired of hearing about Iraq. Lawmakers are afraid that the war will be an albatross around their necks in November. It should come as no surprise, then, that far from the heroes welcome they received last September, Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker faced sharp criticism from both parties about when it will be over.

Their answers contained no surprises. Security in Baghdad has improved, the Iraqi government is still dysfunctional, and Iran is influencing the situation in the country. All three are undoubtedly true, but Petraeus and Crocker blurred a couple of very significant lines, ones that put them at odds with the majority of Middle East experts and the reporting coming out of the country every day.

First, security has improved, but only because we increased the number of forces, and rented the loyalty of Sunni militias – and renting is not owning. These people may turn on us any day, and as Sen. John Kerry asked, how can we expect to broker a deal with Iraq’s warring factions as troop levels return to pre-surge levels, if it couldn’t be done during the surge itself?

The fecklessness of the Iraqi government is not doubted by anyone and many pointed to the failed assault on the oil city of Basra as evidence. But that assault was not motivated by a desire to quash the militias and restore order as Petraeus and Crocker said, but for our country’s strongest ally, Prime Minister Nouri Kamel al-Maliki, to eliminate his biggest political rival – the Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Instead, the Iraqi Army was fought to a standstill, and thousands of regulars defected to Sadr during the battle.

And Iran was continually blurred with Sadr. Both Iran and Sadr are anti-American, but that does not make them a tag-team alliance. In truth, the leader we back, Prime Minister Maliki and his Dawa party, have much closer ties to Iran. Most analysts believe Maliki is increasingly looking like an American stooge in the eyes of Iraqis, while Sadr is winning the public relations war by declaring cease-fires from a position of strength, and courting the country’s top religious leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. It could be the most terrible of ironies that after all the lives and money committed to bringing democracy to Iraq, they may get their free and fair election, and elect the most anti-American man in the country.