In a status review by Dexter Filkins and a lead op-ed piece by Frank Rich, the New York Times essentially declared the Iraq war a lost cause on Sunday. -- [N]o matter how beautiful its language or humane its intent, writes Dexter Filkins in a review of the catastrophe that is present-day Iraq published Sunday in the New York Times, [t]he rise of the allas (pronounced ah-LAS) stands as a grim reminder of how little can be reasonably expected from the Iraqi constitution that is supposed to be delivered tomorrow. -- An allas is an Iraqi who leads a group of killers to their victim, usually for a price. The allas typically points out the Shiites living in predominantly Sunni neighborhoods for the gunmen who are hunting them. He usually wears a mask. -- Or how about this, offered without explicit comment: One night last month, according to the locals, the Iraqi police and army surrounded the Sunni neighborhood of Sababkar in north Baghdad, and pulled 11 young men from their beds. -- Their bodies were found the next day with bullet holes in their temples. The cheeks of some of the men had been punctured by electric drills. One man had been burned by acid. The police denied that they had been involved. -- This isn't the first time this sort of thing has happened, Adnan al-Dulami, a Sunni leader, said. -- With perspectives like these, the Times might as well go ahead and acknowledge that Iraq is in a state of civil war, as has been apparent for months, and as was acknowledged last Monday in an editorial published in Londons Financial Times. -- [I]in this third summer of war, the American project in Iraq has never seemed so wilted and sapped of life, writes Filkins. -- Iraq, it appears, is just a fiction, a country with no agreement on the most basic questions of national identity. -- The real powers on the ground, apart from the U.S. and British armies, are the sectarian militias. -- Abdul-Aziz al-Hakims Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraqs Badr Brigade and Moqtada al-Sadrs Mahdi Army for the Shiites. -- The pesh merga for the Kurds. -- For the Sunnis, the less visible but frequently lethal resistance groups. -- In these circumstances, the notion that security will ever be ensured by Iraqi forces created with the help of the United States is as improbable as that Harry Potter will appear on the scene to save the day with his wizardry. -- As for Frank Rich, he declares: A president can't stay the course when his own citizens (let alone his own allies) won't stay with him. The approval rate for Mr. Bush's handling of Iraq plunged to 34 percent in last weekend's Newsweek poll. . . . Mr. Bush has lost not only the country but also his army. Neither bonuses nor fudged standards nor the faking of high school diplomas has solved the recruitment shortfall. . . . The president's cable cadre is in disarray as well. . . . [P]olitical imperatives are rapidly bringing about the war's end. . . . Nothing that happens on the ground in Iraq can turn around the fate of this war in America. . . . What lies ahead now in Iraq instead is . . . some kind of negotiations (in this case, with Sunni elements of the insurgency), followed by more inflated claims about the readiness of the local troops-in-training, whom we'll then throw to the wolves. . . . The country has already made the decision for Mr. Bush. We're outta there. Now comes the hard task of identifying the leaders who can pick up the pieces of the fiasco that has made us more vulnerable, not less, to the terrorists who struck us four years ago next month. ...
Week in Review
A NATION IN BLOOD AND INK
By Dexter Filkins
New York Times
August 14, 2005
Section 4, Page 1
[PHOTO CAPTION: In a furtive tour outside Baghdad's Green Zone on Thursday, the passing scene was not one to inspire confidence. Barricades were everywhere, and the only people outside were guards attached to various militias.]
[PHOTO CAPTION: American soldiers made this park beside the Tigris River possible. It was part of a $1.5 million vision by a general to win the war by putting Iraqis to work. Now it is abandoned, decrepit and dangerous.]
BAGHDAD -- Inside the heavily fortified Green Zone, a group of prominent Iraqis has struggled for weeks to complete the country's new constitution, haggling over the precise meaning of words like "Islam," "federalism," and "nation."
Out on the streets, meanwhile, a new bit of Arabic slang has slipped into the chatter of ordinary Iraqis: "allas," a word that denotes an Iraqi who leads a group of killers to their victim, usually for a price. The allas typically points out the Shiites living in predominantly Sunni neighborhoods for the gunmen who are hunting them. He usually wears a mask.
"The allas is from the neighborhood, and he had a mask on," said Haider Mohammed, a Shiite, whose relative was murdered recently by a group of Sunni gunmen. "He pointed out my uncle, and they killed him."
The uncle, Hussein Khalil, was found in a garbage dump 100 yards from the spot where his Daewoo sedan had been run off the road. Two bullets had entered the back of Mr. Khalil's skull and exited through his face.
Around the same time, someone found some leaflets, drawn up by a group called the Liberation Army. "We are cleansing the area of dirty Shia," the leaflet declared.
The rise of the allas (pronounced ah-LAS) stands as a grim reminder of how little can be reasonably expected from the Iraqi constitution, no matter how beautiful its language or humane its intent.
In 28 months of war and occupation here, Iraq has always contained two parallel worlds: the world of the Green Zone and the constitution and the rule of law; and the anarchical, unpredictable world outside.
Never have the two worlds seemed so far apart.
From the beginning, the hope here has been that the Iraq outside the Green Zone would grow to resemble the safe and tidy world inside it; that the success of democracy would begin to drain away the anger that pushes the insurgency forward. This may have been what Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was referring to when, in an interview published in Time magazine this month, she said that the insurgency was "losing steam" and that "rather quiet political progress" was transforming the country.
But in this third summer of war, the American project in Iraq has never seemed so wilted and sapped of life. It's not just the guerrillas, who are churning away at their relentless pace, attacking American forces about 65 times a day. It is most everything else, too.
Baghdad seems a city transported from the Middle Ages: a scattering of high-walled fortresses, each protected by a group of armed men. The area between the forts is a lawless no man's land, menaced by bandits and brigands. With the daytime temperatures here hovering at around 115 degrees, the electricity in much of the city flows for only about four hours a day.
With armed guards in tow, I drove across the no man's land the other day to pay a visit to Ahmad Chalabi, the deputy prime minister. Unlike many senior Iraqi officials, who have long since retreated into the Green Zone, Mr. Chalabi still lives in a private home. To get there, you must pass through a series of checkpoints at the outskirts of his neighborhood, manned by guards and crisscrossed by concrete chicanes. At the entrance to Mr. Chalabi's street, there is another checkpoint, made of concrete and barbed wire, and more armed guards. Then, in front of Mr. Chalabi's house, stands yet another blast wall. When Mr. Chalabi walks into his front yard, even inside his own compound, a dozen armed guards surround him.
Inside his house, Mr. Chalabi described one of his most recent efforts, to help broker a cease-fire in the city of Tal Afar, 200 miles to the north.
"I had all the sheiks here with me," he said.
On my way home, I noticed that a car was following me. Three times, the mysterious car accelerated to get close. Two men inside: a young man, maybe in his 30's, and a bald man behind the wheel. As the car drew close, my chase car -- a second vehicle, filled with armed guards, deployed to follow my own -- cut the men off in traffic. I sped away.
Americans, here and in the United States, wait for the day when the Iraqi police and army will shoulder the burden and let them go home.
One night last month, according to the locals, the Iraqi police and army surrounded the Sunni neighborhood of Sababkar in north Baghdad, and pulled 11 young men from their beds.
Their bodies were found the next day with bullet holes in their temples. The cheeks of some of the men had been punctured by electric drills. One man had been burned by acid. The police denied that they had been involved.
"This isn't the first time this sort of thing has happened," Adnan al-Dulami, a Sunni leader, said.
AN ABANDONED SWING SET
For much of last year, the soldiers of the First Cavalry Division oversaw a project to restore the river-front park on the east bank of the Tigris River. Under American eyes, the Iraqis planted sod, installed a sprinkler system and put up swing sets for the Iraqi children. It cost $1.5 million. The Tigris River Park was part of a vision of the unit's commander, Maj. Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, to win the war by putting Iraqis to work.
General Chiarelli left Iraq this year, and the American unit that took over had other priorities. The sod is mostly dead now, and the sidewalks are covered in broken glass. The sprinkler heads have been stolen. The northern half of the park is sealed off by barbed wire and blast walls; Iraqis are told stay back, lest they be shot by American snipers on the roof of a nearby hotel.
THE ELUSIVE CONSENSUS
Zalmay Khalilzad, the new American ambassador here, has publicly prodded the Iraqis to finish the constitution by Aug. 15, the date they set for themselves. On several occasions, Mr. Khalilzad has described the Iraqi constitution as a national compact, a document symbolizing the consensus of the nation.
And there's the rub. When the Americans smashed Saddam Hussein's regime two and half years ago, what lay revealed was a country with no agreement on the most basic questions of national identity. The Sunnis, a minority in charge here for five centuries, have not, for the most part, accepted that they will no longer control the country. The Shiites, the long-suppressed majority, want to set up a theocracy. The Kurds don't want to be part of Iraq at all. There is only so much that language can do to paper over such differences.
Last week, one of the country's largest Shiite political parties held a ceremony to commemorate the death of Ayatollah Muhammad Bakr al-Hakim, a moderate Shiite cleric who was assassinated by a huge car bomb two years ago. The rally was held in the Tigris River villa once occupied by Tariq Aziz, one of Mr. Hussein's senior henchmen. Nowadays, the house is controlled by the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, one of the dominant parties in the Shiite coalition that heads the Iraqi government.
Inside a tent where the ceremony unfolded, a large poster depicted three men: Mr. Hakim, the dead ayatollah; Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the nation's most revered Shiite leader; and Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, the late ayatollah's brother and, as the head of the Supreme Council, perhaps the country's most powerful political leader. The portraits stood as a kind of trinity, symbolizing the fusion of Islam and politics.
Outside the tent, a third member of the Hakim family stood in a receiving line. Amar al-Hakim, Abdul-Aziz's son and heir to the family dynasty, seemed in an upbeat mood. Like most Shiite political leaders here, Mr. Hakim seemed untroubled by the disputes in the constitution.
"We can all get along," Mr. Hakim said, smiling, "but I don't think we have to give anything up."
FOR EACH A MILITIA
Throughout the ceremony, Mr. Hakim's compound was guarded by members of the Badr Brigade, the party's black-booted Iranian-trained militia. When the Americans were in charge here, they leaned hard on Mr. Hakim to disband it. But in one of his first official acts, Mr. Hakim publicly legalized his own private army.
With all the hubbub at Mr. Hakim's house, it was easy to miss what was going on in the house next door. Jalal Talabani, the Iraqi president and Kurdish leader, was getting ready to hold a dinner for the country's senior political leaders, Mr. Hakim included, to break the logjam over the constitution. Mr. Talabani's house, too, was guarded by a militia, but a different one from Mr. Hakim's. Here, it was the pesh merga who stood by with their guns, loyal only to Mr. Talabani.
The pesh merga fighters, milling about outside Mr. Talabani's villa and smoking cigarettes, said they had come all the way from the mountains of Kurdistan to protect their boss. None of them spoke a word of Arabic. To them, Baghdad was a foreign land.
WE SHOULD GET TOGETHER
Amid such bleakness, it is a wonder that anyone comes forward at all. Yet still the Iraqis do, even at the threat of death. One of them is Fakhri al-Qaisi, a dentist and Sunni member of the committee charged with drafting the constitution. Dr. Qaisi knows people close to the Sunni insurgency and, as such, has come under suspicion by the Americans and the Shiite-dominated government.
By Dr. Qaisi's count, the Americans have raided his home 17 times, once driving a tank into his dental office. Members of the Badr Brigade, the Shiite militia, recently killed his brother-in-law, Dr. Qaisi said, and appear to be aiming at him too. Now, because he has joined the constitutional committee, he has begun receiving death threats from Sunni insurgents as well.
"Everyone wants to kill me!" Dr. Qaisi said with a laugh, seated in a Green Zone lounge during a break from constitution drafting. "The Americans want to kill me, the Shiites want to kill me, the Kurds want to kill me, and even the insurgents."
"Every night, a different car passes by my house," he said.
To protect himself, Dr. Qaisi has taken to spending nights in his car, though he allows that he sometimes stops by his home during the day to visit one of his three wives.
For all his problems, and all the problems facing Iraq, Dr. Qaisi expressed a firm belief that national reconciliation in Iraq was still possible, if leaders like himself could show the strength to give a little.
In this regard, as in so many others here, it's impossible to know. In the middle of a conversation, Dr. Qaisi stopped talking, recognizing that at the table next to him was Abu Hassan al-Amiri, the leader of the Badr Brigade. That's the organization that Dr. Qaisi believes killed his brother-in-law, and the same group, he believes, that would like to kill him now.
Dr. Qaisi rose from his seat, and so did Mr. Amiri.
"It's so nice to see you," Dr. Qaisi said. "We should get together."
The two men embraced, and kissed each other's cheeks.
"Yes," Mr. Amiri said, his arms wrapped around Dr. Qaisi. "We really should."
SOMEONE TELL THE PRESIDENT THE WAR IS OVER
By Frank Rich
New York Times
August 14, 2005
Section 4, Page 13
Like the Japanese soldier marooned on an island for years after V-J Day, President Bush may be the last person in the country to learn that for Americans, if not Iraqis, the war in Iraq is over. "We will stay the course," he insistently tells us from his Texas ranch. What do you mean we, white man?
A president can't stay the course when his own citizens (let alone his own allies) won't stay with him. The approval rate for Mr. Bush's handling of Iraq plunged to 34 percent in last weekend's Newsweek poll -- a match for the 32 percent that approved L.B.J.'s handling of Vietnam in early March 1968. (The two presidents' overall approval ratings have also converged: 41 percent for Johnson then, 42 percent for Bush now.) On March 31, 1968, as L.B.J.'s ratings plummeted further, he announced he wouldn't seek re-election, commencing our long extrication from that quagmire.
But our current Texas president has even outdone his predecessor; Mr. Bush has lost not only the country but also his army. Neither bonuses nor fudged standards nor the faking of high school diplomas has solved the recruitment shortfall. Now Jake Tapper of ABC News reports that the armed forces are so eager for bodies they will flout "don't ask, don't tell" and hang on to gay soldiers who tell, even if they tell the press.
The president's cable cadre is in disarray as well. At Fox News Bill O'Reilly is trashing Donald Rumsfeld for his incompetence, and Ann Coulter is chiding Mr. O'Reilly for being a defeatist. In an emblematic gesture akin to waving a white flag, Robert Novak walked off a CNN set and possibly out of a job rather than answer questions about his role in smearing the man who helped expose the administration's prewar inflation of Saddam W.M.D.'s. (On this sinking ship, it's hard to know which rat to root for.)
As if the right-wing pundit crackup isn't unsettling enough, Mr. Bush's top war strategists, starting with Mr. Rumsfeld and Gen. Richard Myers, have of late tried to rebrand the war in Iraq as what the defense secretary calls "a global struggle against violent extremism." A struggle is what you have with your landlord. When the war's über-managers start using euphemisms for a conflict this lethal, it's a clear sign that the battle to keep the Iraq war afloat with the American public is lost.
That battle crashed past the tipping point this month in Ohio. There's historical symmetry in that. It was in Cincinnati on Oct. 7, 2002, that Mr. Bush gave the fateful address that sped Congressional ratification of the war just days later. The speech was a miasma of self-delusion, half-truths, and hype. The president said that "we know that Iraq and Al Qaeda have had high-level contacts that go back a decade," an exaggeration based on evidence that the Senate Intelligence Committee would later find far from conclusive. He said that Saddam "could have a nuclear weapon in less than a year" were he able to secure "an amount of highly enriched uranium a little larger than a single softball." Our own National Intelligence Estimate of Oct. 1 quoted State Department findings that claims of Iraqi pursuit of uranium in Africa were "highly dubious."
It was on these false premises -- that Iraq was both a collaborator on 9/11 and about to inflict mushroom clouds on America -- that honorable and brave young Americans were sent off to fight. Among them were the 19 marine reservists from a single suburban Cleveland battalion slaughtered in just three days at the start of this month. As they perished, another Ohio marine reservist who had served in Iraq came close to winning a Congressional election in southern Ohio. Paul Hackett, a Democrat who called the president a "chicken hawk," received 48 percent of the vote in exactly the kind of bedrock conservative Ohio district that decided the 2004 election for Mr. Bush.
These are the tea leaves that all Republicans, not just Chuck Hagel, are reading now. Newt Gingrich called the Hackett near-victory "a wake-up call." The resolutely pro-war New York Post editorial page begged Mr. Bush (to no avail) to "show some leadership" by showing up in Ohio to salute the fallen and their families. A Bush loyalist, Senator George Allen of Virginia, instructed the president to meet with Cindy Sheehan, the mother camping out in Crawford, as "a matter of courtesy and decency." Or, to translate his Washingtonese, as a matter of politics. Only someone as adrift from reality as Mr. Bush would need to be told that a vacationing president can't win a standoff with a grief-stricken parent commandeering TV cameras and the blogosphere 24/7.
Such political imperatives are rapidly bringing about the war's end. That's inevitable for a war of choice, not necessity, that was conceived in politics from the start. Iraq was a Bush administration idée fixe before there was a 9/11. Within hours of that horrible trauma, according to Richard Clarke's Against All Enemies, Mr. Rumsfeld was proposing Iraq as a battlefield, not because the enemy that attacked America was there, but because it offered "better targets" than the shadowy terrorist redoubts of Afghanistan. It was easier to take out Saddam -- and burnish Mr. Bush's credentials as a slam-dunk "war president," suitable for a "Top Gun" victory jig -- than to shut down Al Qaeda and smoke out its leader "dead or alive."
But just as politics are a bad motive for choosing a war, so they can be a doomed engine for running a war. In an interview with Tim Russert early last year, Mr. Bush said, "The thing about the Vietnam War that troubles me, as I look back, was it was a political war," adding that the "essential" lesson he learned from Vietnam was to not have "politicians making military decisions." But by then Mr. Bush had disastrously ignored that very lesson; he had let Mr. Rumsfeld publicly rebuke the Army's chief of staff, Eric Shinseki, after the general dared tell the truth: that several hundred thousand troops would be required to secure Iraq. To this day it's our failure to provide that security that has turned the country into the terrorist haven it hadn't been before 9/11 -- "the central front in the war on terror," as Mr. Bush keeps reminding us, as if that might make us forget he's the one who recklessly created it.
The endgame for American involvement in Iraq will be of a piece with the rest of this sorry history. "It makes no sense for the commander in chief to put out a timetable" for withdrawal, Mr. Bush declared on the same day that 14 of those Ohio troops were killed by a roadside bomb in Haditha. But even as he spoke, the war's actual commander, Gen. George Casey, had already publicly set a timetable for "some fairly substantial reductions" to start next spring. Officially this calendar is tied to the next round of Iraqi elections, but it's quite another election this administration has in mind. The priority now is less to save Jessica Lynch (or Iraqi democracy) than to save Rick Santorum and every other endangered Republican facing voters in November 2006.
Nothing that happens on the ground in Iraq can turn around the fate of this war in America: not a shotgun constitution rushed to meet an arbitrary deadline, not another Iraqi election, not higher terrorist body counts, not another battle for Falluja (where insurgents may again regroup, the Los Angeles Times reported last week). A citizenry that was asked to accept tax cuts, not sacrifice, at the war's inception is hardly in the mood to start sacrificing now. There will be neither the volunteers nor the money required to field the wholesale additional American troops that might bolster the security situation in Iraq.
What lies ahead now in Iraq instead is not victory, which Mr. Bush has never clearly defined anyway, but an exit (or triage) strategy that may echo Johnson's March 1968 plan for retreat from Vietnam: some kind of negotiations (in this case, with Sunni elements of the insurgency), followed by more inflated claims about the readiness of the local troops-in-training, whom we'll then throw to the wolves. Such an outcome may lead to even greater disaster, but this administration long ago squandered the credibility needed to make the difficult case that more human and financial resources might prevent Iraq from continuing its descent into civil war and its devolution into jihad central.
Thus the president's claim on Thursday that "no decision has been made yet" about withdrawing troops from Iraq can be taken exactly as seriously as the vice president's preceding fantasy that the insurgency is in its "last throes." The country has already made the decision for Mr. Bush. We're outta there. Now comes the hard task of identifying the leaders who can pick up the pieces of the fiasco that has made us more vulnerable, not less, to the terrorists who struck us four years ago next month.