Iraqi progress continues: reconciliation and benchmarks

Iraq continues its progress towards stability with a major hurdle to reconciliation falling as early as next week.  The Sunni parliamentary bloc, Tawafaq Front, will return to the unity government of Nouri al-Maliki as early as next week.  Meanwhile, the Maliki government has succeeded on 15 of the 18 benchmarks set by Congress in 2007, when the Democrats tried to handicap American efforts to help Iraq stand itself up:

Sunni leaders now say the government has done enough to address their core conditions, including passing an amnesty law that has freed thousands of Sunni detainees this year. The leaders said they were also encouraged by the government’s efforts in tackling Shiite militias, especially the Mahdi Army of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

“We feel that a great deal of them have been fulfilled,” said Salim Abdullah al-Jubori, a spokesmen for the Sunni bloc, referring to the conditions.

If the Sunni bloc returns, it will mark a political victory for Maliki as well achieve a key U.S. policy goal. Sunnis would have a greater voice in a cabinet currently dominated by Shiites and Kurds.

Meanwhile, only two benchmarks have yet to be addressed, according to the latest review:

The White House sees the progress in a particularly positive light, declaring in a new assessment to Congress that Iraq’s efforts on 15 of 18 benchmarks are “satisfactory”—almost twice of what it determined to be the case a year ago. The May 2008 report card, obtained by the Associated Press, determines that only two of the benchmarks—enacting and implementing laws to disarm militias and distribute oil revenues—are unsatisfactory.

In the past 12 months, since the White House released its first formal assessment of Iraq’s military and political progress, Baghdad politicians have reached several new agreements seen as critical to easing sectarian tensions.

They have passed, for example, legislation that grants amnesty for some prisoners and allows former members of Saddam Hussein’s political party to recover lost jobs or pensions. They also determined that provincial elections would be held by Oct. 1.

The Democrats answered this by claiming that more progress would have been made had we pulled out of Iraq.  Carl Levin stated that the Bush administration had “repeatedly missed opportunities to shift this burden to the Iraqis,” but did not explain how the Iraqis could have shouldered that burden until their own security forces were strong enough to do so.  One of the three benchmarks that did not show satisfactory progress was the police forces, which still have sectarian biases and need more training and oversight from the US and Iraqi Army.

We have begun rotating the surge troops out of Iraq already.  By the end of the summer, we will have reduced our footprint to pre-surge levels.  The Iraqi Army, though, has grown remarkably in both size and skill, and as Maliki has shown in Basra, Mosul, Amarah, and Sadr City, they can now fulfill most of the combat-style missions in Iraq.  As they continue to develop and grow, we will gradually take on a support and logistics role rather than a front-line role, as well as concentrate on rebuilding efforts.

That strategy helps secure success, rather than the Levin Dash method of hoping the ladder holds on the last helicopter off of the embassy.  The progress on benchmarks and on political reconciliation shows the wisdom of the Bush administration, Robert Gates, and John McCain in not surrendering and rushing into retreat.  Don’t expect the Democrats to talk much about Iraq under these circumstances.