October 18, 2004 | Commentary on National Security and Defense

Iraq Looking Up

You wouldn't know it from most of the pun dits or the evening news broadcasts, but things are looking up in Iraq. The high-stakes decision to go on the offensive militarily - and politically - over the last couple of weeks has made a big difference.

The airstrikes, ground assaults, local negotiations and international diplomacy will pay substantial dividends in establishing security in the run-up to next January's Iraqi national elections.

Some discouraging days are undoubtedly still ahead (like attacks in the Green Zone). But a number of disparate, but related, events indicate that the political and military momentum is shifting to the Coalition and Iraqi side.

Skeptical? Consider the following developments:

NATO forces: In a significant diplomatic victory last Wednesday, the NATO defense ministers, meeting in Romania, agreed to increase the group's military training contingent in Iraq from 40 to 300 by year's end. The new military advisers (most likely initially from Denmark and Norway) will be deployed to a center outside Baghdad to train Iraqi military officers.

The NATO trainers will help boost the number of Iraqi forces from the current 100,000 to a projected 145,000 by next January. (The NATO forces will serve under American Gen. David Petraeus.) Equipping these forces is also another challenge, and NATO may play a role there as well.

Though France and Germany are still playing hard to get, there are some subtle hints that even they may kick in some assistance later on. Moreover, Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld's NATO agreement is an important step in helping mend the trans-Atlantic rift over Iraq.

Fallujah: The central-Iraq town of 300,000 has been a snake pit since the Marines ended their siege in April. But in recent weeks, precision U.S. airstrikes have killed at least six senior members of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's terror network. And the Pentagon claims to have eliminated half the foreign fighter leadership in the last month.

The airstrikes have had the added benefit of creating fault lines among Fallujah's bad guys. The pounding has inspired local insurgents to turn against the foreign fighters and al Qaeda. Fallujan vigilante justice resulted in the killing of at least five foreign Arab fighters in recent weeks, including a senior Zarqawi aide.

On the political side, while Iraqis negotiated for return of the city's control to local forces, interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi put some political spine into the situation by demanding that Fallujah's citizens hand over Zarqawi - or face attack.

"If they do not turn in al Zarqawi and his group, we will carry out operations in Fallujah," he recently told the 100-member interim Iraqi National Council. Gentle reminders of the successful, joint Iraqi-U.S. assault on Samarra earlier this month may give locals the needed incentive to fork over the terrorists.

Sadr City: Stubborn supporters of rebel cleric Muqtada al-Sadr have agreed to turn in their weapons in exchange for cold cash in the Baghdad slum of Sadr City ($1,000 for a heavy machine gun; $250 for a mortar; $170 for a grenade launcher; and even 25 cents for a bullet).

Early buy-back results are promising, but it's not clear to what extent Sadr's Mahdi Army will really disarm. Cooperation, relative calm and a fragile cease-fire prevail for now. If the peace deal holds, aid to rebuild this dilapidated section of Baghdad is waiting in the wings.

The point: The situation in Iraq is better than you'd think from the "if it bleeds, it leads" news reports.

The seemingly intractable challenges in Fallujah, Najaf, Samarra, Baghdad and Ramadi shouldn't be underestimated by any means. But these problems - confined predominantly to the Sunni Triangle's major urban areas - should be contrasted with the rest of the country, which has been pacified and is under military control. (Remember: Iraq is California's size.)

Iraqis need to take control of the security situation as soon as possible. Military victories, which should include Iraqi forces for confidence-bolstering purposes, must be quickly followed up by economic aid to the contested area.

We'll surely continue to see violence through the U.S. elections next month and the Iraqi elections next January. But if we (in collaboration with Iraqi counterparts) keep pressing the political and military offensive as we have of late, stability and security is in sight.

Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow. E-mail: peterbrookes@heritage.org

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

First appeared in the New York Post