The number of Iraqis killed in political violence fell nearly 10 percent in June, according to security officials. The U.S military attributes the drop to the deployment of extra troops, the formation of antiterrorist fronts among Sunni former rebels, and Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's decision to suspend the activities of his militia, the Mahdi Army. Is it a lasting sign that things are finally going right in Iraq? RFE/RL correspondent Andrew Tully put the question to Michael O'Hanlon, a defense analyst at the Washington-based Brookings Institution.
RFE/RL: You recently toured Iraq from May 28 to June 4, going from the Baghdad area north to Tikrit and south to Basra. What are your impressions from this trip?
Michael O'Hanlon: I think the spring of 2008 will be remembered as the period when the Iraqi army began to establish itself as a viable fighting force capable of taking on the country's enemies, capable of helping to stabilize their own nation, and also being able to do more and more of this without American help. Now they still need our assistance in certain ways, but they don't need us, in most cases, to be the lead force. And that's very good news for Americans who are looking for a day when we can pull ourselves out safely.
RFE/RL: Your group moved around southern Iraq with Iraqi troops -- and without U.S. or British armed escorts -- which you see as a strong sign of progress there. Is there just as much progress elsewhere in Iraq? And just as important, is it lasting?
O'Hanlon: The progress is fragile, and it varies from one part of Iraq to another, but the overall death rate in Iraq is down dramatically, by about 80 percent relative to a year and a half ago. But there are still parts of Iraq that are quite tense, up around Mosul in the north, for example, and there are certain parts of central Iraq that are potentially unstable to the extent that certain terrible things could happen again: Al-Qaeda could launch a spectacular attack if the United States pulled out [of the region] too quickly. In other words, there are a lot of reasons to be wary about an overly rapid change in our policy. But we, by the same token, can see a lot of progress, and I think that we can look to a day when, in the next two to three years, the model that we've seen work now in Al-Anbar Province [west of Baghdad] and in Basrah can be extended throughout more of Iraq, and we can see reductions of at least half of the total American presence in Iraq.
RFE/RL: What's the possibility that this let-up in the fighting is a strategy by enemies of the United States, lulling it into withdrawing its forces soon before mounting a major offensive to crush any remaining U.S. and Iraqi forces?
O'Hanlon: Yes, it is a worry, what Iran would do. But we are also seeing a trend in Iraq where Iraqis are starting to get tired of Iran. They're starting to realize what the Iranians have been up to. The Iranians are arming and equipping and funding every imaginable group, and often just trying to stoke violence for its own sake. And that's starting to create a nationalistic backlash among the Iraqi people and government against Iran. There's a chance that Iran won't be able to play this game as well as it has in the past.
Moreover, one last point, the city of Basrah in the south, where the Iraqi army is now really in charge -- along with the police -- that city is a place where they have found a lot of Iranian weapons caches on their own, and they don't have to depend on the United States to convince them any more that Iran's playing a nefarious role in their country. They can see it with their own eyes. So I think that Iran may have a harder time being quite so cynical as it's managed to successfully be in much of the last few years.
RFE/RL: My last question, referring to "enemies of the United States," was meant to include Al-Qaeda in Iraq, as well as various sectarian militias. Your answer focused on Iran. Is Iran the chief antagonist in the Iraq war now? And what about Al-Qaeda in Iraq and the indigenous Iraqi militias?
O'Hanlon: Yes, I think Iran is the main problem right now. Al-Qaeda is probably number two. It's still a serious problem, and it could get worse. But Al-Qaeda is very much on the run, and it has fewer and fewer sanctuaries within the country. And also, the Sunni population has really turned against it, even more fundamentally than the Shi'ite population has turned against Iran. And so I am nervous about both Al-Qaeda in Iraq and Iran, but I think that we are seeing momentum against each of those threats, and probably even more momentum against Al-Qaeda in Iraq.
RFE/RL: Yet Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki recently spent three days in Tehran, making it clear he wants the two countries to have close relations. At the same time, al-Maliki's government is in difficult negotiations with Washington over the so-called Status of Forces Agreement, which includes rules that U.S. troops and contract employees must follow while operating in Iraq. Is the Iraqi government, at least, truly fed up with Iran, as you say?
O'Hanlon: There is no doubt that Iraq would like to have a decent working relationship still with Iran. They're obviously close neighbors, they share a religious faith, they're the two major Shi'ite countries in the world, there's a lot of movement of their pilgrims and other people back and forth, and a lot of the Iraqi resistance had some debt to Iran from the period when [late former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein] was in control of Iraq. And so for all these reasons it's true: al-Maliki would like to stay on workmanlike terms with the Iranian government. And also, on the Status of Forces Agreement, he is playing hardball with the United States, he's trying to get some improvement on a couple of the stipulations that are currently being discussed. But I do not believe that he really wants us to leave.
RFE/RL: Last year, one of your colleagues said Americans should have what he called "strategic patience" with Iraq because the "surge" was beginning to show progress. At the time, you drew a similar conclusion. Are you again calling for Americans to be patient?
O'Hanlon: As far as it goes, "strategic patience" is correct, and I agree with it. But there could be circumstances in which it would not be appropriate. If we were still losing, if we were demonstrably going to fail, or if that was even the likelihood and it was a question of whether we should keep reinforcing a failing mission in the hope that somehow patience would finally become a virtue, I would not subscribe to that. I think that the reason for patience is the mission is starting to be much more successful, and therefore we are starting to see a way by which we can achieve some of our core goals in Iraq for the first time.
RFE/RL: People often ask if we can win, or are winning, in Iraq. How would you reply after what you have seen?
O’Hanlon: The last year and a half has been a dramatic turnaround; we are making enormous progress. I don't like to use terms like "victory" or "winning" because, I think, given where we are in Iraq, there's been so much sacrifice, so many losses, so many mistakes that such terms are not entirely appropriate for me. But we're making huge progress, and I think we should continue to build on that progress because the stakes are so high and the chances of getting a decent outcome have now become much better.