Any illusions that the war in Iraq was over were dispelled this week. Widespread coordinated attacks by insurgents claimed the lives of 89 people and wounded at least 315 others.
The level of violence reminded many of the dark days of 2006 and 2007 when our troops were engaged in some of the bloodiest fighting of the sectarian conflict.
Iraq has gone relatively unnoticed in the press in recent months. The war in Afghanistan and the killing of Osama bin Laden had replaced the focus on Iraq. But while the fighting and bloodletting in Iraq may have dissipated in recent months, it never ended.
The painful reality is that after eight years of war and nearly a year after President Obama declared the official end of combat missions, American soldiers are still deeply engaged in fighting both Sunni and Shiite insurgents. About 47,000 U.S. troops remain in this very unstable and dangerous country. Forty-four American soldiers have been killed so far this year and scores of others have been wounded — many by roadside bombs.
It is a war fought largely beyond public scrutiny as reporter Tim Arango of The New York Times pointed out recently. The action is carried out in small villages and urban neighborhoods almost nightly, when Iraqi and American Special Forces teams descend on homes in search of weapons and insurgents. It is dangerous and difficult work. There is no shortage of extremists bent on overthrowing the Iraqi government or exacting violence against Americans.
But the operations do little to dispel the widespread hatred and distrust of U.S. forces by ordinary Iraqis who just want us to leave their country. They may be grateful Saddam is gone, but they blame us for the insurgency which started immediately after he was deposed.
Since the U.S. intervened in Iraq, the country has been a breeding ground for extremist groups. They weren’t there before, but they are now. Al-Qaida terrorists and religious and ethnic factions are trying to disrupt the internal political process and make Iraq a battlefield to attack Americans as well as the Iraqi government institutions. It doesn’t bode well for long-term stability.
But the chief concern for many Iraqis is the lack of electricity and other essential services that continue to plague the country. In many parts of Iraq there is only four to eight hours of electricity available each day. Iraqis sleep on their rooftops to stay cool in the intense summer heat.
Despite having disbursed hundreds of billions of dollars for rebuilding the country’s infrastructure, we have not been able to deliver on our pledge to provide electricity to every village and town. Much of that money remains unaccounted for. The Iraqi government is largely dysfunctional.
Many feel the attacks were prompted by the announcement that the Iraqi government has agreed to formally negotiate with the United States about extending its troop presence for training beyond the year-end withdrawal deadline that the Obama administration previously set.
The uncomfortable dilemma for us is that if we leave, the country could disintegrate into civil war. If we stay longer the insurgency could intensify. The prospects for peace and prosperity in the near term are not good. This is a pivotal time for Iraq. Last September President Obama said it was time to “turn the page” on Iraq. Many Americans feel the same way. That might not be so easy now.
Iraq offers hard lessons in the perils of nation building. It is proving to be the worst foreign policy disaster in American history. We may forget it, but we are still very much at war in Iraq.