Iraq and the November Elections

A special election in California to fill the seat vacated by convicted Republican U.S. Representative Randy Cunningham has made clear that the Democrats’ fight to regain control of Congress will be a tough one.

In a San Diego contest, Francine Busby, the Democrat, lost to Republican Brian P. Bilbray by a margin of 49% to 45%. That margin was far tighter than Busby’s loss to Cunningham in 2004, when she won just 36 percent of the vote, but a loss it was. What is equally disappointing is that President George W. Bush, his wife Laura, and Vice President Dick Cheney actively campaigned for Bilbray—and it seemed to help stave off complete Republican hemorrhaging in that election.

Clearly the Democrats are much stronger than they were two years ago but victory in strongly Republican and even some Republican-held swing district may prove elusive.

The biggest problem says Karl Rove, the President’s political guru, is that “People like this president. They’re just sour right now on the war.” Rove may be significantly low-balling the damage the past 18 months have done to Bush’s personal ratings, but the GOP is mobilizing on the basis of Rove’s analysis. Those of us who remember the Vietnam War understand that peace breaks out just before every election. And we are seeing the signs right now.

After Bush met with his senior advisers this week at Camp David, the president threw away the script for an international video conference with the new Iraqi government and flew to Baghdad to run the media event himself. General George Casey was on television Sunday talking about “continued gradual reductions” in troops “into next year,” though no major pullout seems likely before the elections.

The good news spin may predominate in the red states, but in New York we are more likely to hear an opposing view. The London Telegraph reminded its readers that a 3,500-member armored brigade based in Kuwait has been summoned to Iraq, and a German-based brigade is on alert. These steps do not bring the troops home.

Yet caveats raised in the face of Bush administration optimism may miss the point—there is today a real chance to reduce tensions in Iraq. The context in which the leading Iraqi terrorist, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was found and killed suggests that the Sunnis may be involved in presenting an overture to the Shia that could move the nation away from civil war.

Strategic Forecasting, a group of policy analysts, believes that the death of al-Zarqawi represents a political act. As they see it, the Iraqi Sunnis turned on their ally al-Zarqawi and his tactics of using suicide bombers to kill Shiites. They point out that following the terrorist’s death, some 17 other sites were raided. Presumably the Sunnis supplied the U.S. with the intelligence to conduct these raids. In Fallujuh, there are reports that Sunnis have launched attacks on Zarqawi’s followers. Moreover, after the terrorist’s death, the new Iraqi government reached final agreement on who will head the Departments of Interior and Defense in the new government. These analysts conclude: “Logic would have it that it is now the Shia’s turn to show good faith.”

What the Sunnis want is for the Shiite militias to be disarmed, though the police as well have been strongly infiltrated by Shiite religious groups. Even so, a useful first step would be for the Shiite death squads, who have killed civilians—gays among them as Doug Ireland has reported in this newspaper—to stand down. It is by no means clear, however, that the groups conducting these attacks can be controlled.

The Iraqi government is also supervising the release of prisoners held in Iraqi jails and criticizing misconduct by United States troops. It’s a minimally necessary step for the Iraqi government to preserve credibility. The investigation into the shooting of Iraqi civilians by U.S. Marines in Haditha last November could lead to serious criminal charges. No one pretends that any one of these steps will be sufficient, but it is obvious that a major effort is underway to restore national harmony.

Still it is unclear that a national government that meets in the United States Green Zone behind walls, barbed wire, and a cordon of U.S. troops can ever be accepted by the Iraqi people.