Polls show Americans by far viewing the war in Iraq and the war against terror as the most important issue in the Nov. 7 balloting. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman connected last month's spike in violence-October was the deadliest month for U.S forces in Iraq this year-to the 1968 Tet Offensive in Vietnam, a turning point that led President Lyndon Johnson not to seek a second term. "He could be right," President Bush said about Friedman's theory during an October press conference. "There's certainly a stepped-up level of violence, and we're heading into an election."
With terrorists trying to convince American voters to choose candidates favoring U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, the Bush administration was deep in talks with Iraqi leaders-proposing timelines, suggesting some tactical changes, and restating its resolve. President Bush affirmed the five-month-old government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki while pushing it to "respect the fact that we've got patience, but not unlimited patience."
For now, the Bush administration remains committed to the goal of creating a stable and free democracy in Iraq despite formidable obstacles to peace. It is trying to avoid sweeping changes such as a rapid pullout or the three-state solution being promoted by several members of Congress. But dissenting voices are touting their own analysis of the state of affairs in Iraq.
Radwan Masmoudi, founder and president of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, a moderate Washington-based think tank, says U.S. troops in Iraq are making things worse: "I would announce that we are leaving in six months, and that it is up to the Iraqis to fix their problems in those six months." Masmoudi says the U.S. presence increases the likelihood of civil war between Shiites and Sunnis, and if left to themselves "there are enough Iraqis on both sides who realize that they have to live together and civil war would be a disaster for everybody . . . we need to end the occupation as soon as possible."
Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum, a think tank devoted to fighting radical Islam and promoting democracy in the Middle East, favors neither a drastic pullout nor the current course. "I'm half-way between," Pipes told WORLD. "I think cut and run is always the wrong thing to do, and yet I think the president overextended. I think he looked at Iraq in terms of 1945-rehabilitating the country as we did Japan and Germany. That isn't going to happen for many reasons."
Pipes suggests a redeployment of troops away from the urban areas and into the deserts. Separated from the impacted areas, Pipes said, troops can monitor the essential tasks, such as "maintaining the territorial integrity, making sure oil and gas get out, and making sure there is not a Saddam-like monster emerging. Then hand the keys over to the Iraqis and say, 'It's your country. Do your best. Good luck. Here's some money.'"
Others, though, see Iraq as the pivotal struggle in a region where radicals are gaining footholds and moderates are struggling to survive. General John Abizaid, head of the U.S. Central Command, said a pullout would be disastrous and "could plunge the region into all-out chaos" and "strengthen extremists." President Bush echoed his concerns during an Oct. 25 press conference: "If we do not defeat the terrorists or extremists in Iraq, they will gain access to vast oil reserves and use Iraq as a base to overthrow moderate governments across the broader Middle East. They will launch new attacks on America from this new safe haven."
General George Casey, the U.S. commander in Iraq, spoke of progress toward an eventual American withdrawal from Iraq but said he will not hesitate to ask for more troops: "We are about 75 percent of the way through a three-step process in building those [Iraqi] forces. It is going to take another 12 to 18 months or so till I believe the Iraqi security forces are completely capable of taking over responsibility for their own security that's still coupled with some level of support from us."
The final week of October brought speculation of a growing rift between Iraqi and U.S. leaders and doubt regarding Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's ability to rein in extremists. The angry leader dismissed suggestions of a timetable for curbing violence and disavowed a raid on the Sadr City slum in Baghdad by Iraqi and U.S. forces, saying he was not consulted. The 2.5 million Shiites of the slum-largely avoided by U.S. and Iraqi troops prior to the raid-are controlled by anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army and comprise a key component of Iraq's fragile Shiite-dominated government.
President Bush, pledging to improve communications with Prime Minister Maliki, smoothed out other differences during an Oct. 28 video conference with the Iraqi leader. The subsequent statement released made no mention of timelines but emphasized the common goals of accelerating the training and command transfer of Iraqi Security Forces as well as the transferring of security to the Iraqi government. More specific benchmarks mentioned earlier in the week include timelines for disarming illegal militias, sharing oil revenues among all religious and ethnic groups, "amending the Iraqi constitution and reforming the de-Baathification process."
None of these goals will be easy. The complex web of anti-democracy enemies is varied, volatile, and often difficult to flesh out. Sunnis and Shiites continue to exchange blows while Shiite splinter groups now target each other. Years of totalitarian rule under Saddam Hussein "repressed ethnic and ideological conflicts rather than solve them, and these are now fully on display in Iraq," Pipes said.
The remaining remnant of Saddam Hussein's Baathist regime further complicates matters. An assassination list purportedly released by the Iraqi Baath Party in September calls for the murder of 60 prominent Iraqi officials and their "first, second, and third degree relatives." The Iraqi Baath Party, operating from Syria, claimed responsibility for the Oct. 9 assassination of the brother of Iraqi Vice-President Tariq al-Hashemi.
These obstacles were visible in their most vehement incarnations during October, resulting in the death of 105 U.S. service members and more than 300 Iraqi security personnel. Some analysts blamed the increased violence on Ramadan-Muslims believe deeds done during the holy month earn more credit-but many connect the spike to an attempt to influence U.S. elections.
One effort to think through war issues without influencing the election is the Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan "fresh eyes" commission scheduled to give its recommendations to the president soon after Nov. 7. Led by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Democratic congressman Lee Hamilton, the 10-person group has been meeting behind closed doors since April. Baker said his panel is preparing to recommend alternatives to current strategy but will not produce a "magic bullet" to end the war.
Meanwhile, a senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has been gaining some support for the three-state solution he is advocating. Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) says Iraq should be partitioned into three separate Kurdish, Sunni, and Shiite regions based upon divisions that already exist. Iraq's constitution permits self-governing regions, but Sunnis are against this notion and have called for a review of the constitution. Opponents of the proposal say dividing the country would result in civil war and Iranian domination over Shiite sectors, but the proposal could gain momentum should the Democrats fare well in the elections.
Which will be more significant: the lessons from Nov. 7 or the lessons from history, particularly those centering on the campaigns of conquest that Islamic militants over the centuries launched from the Middle East? "They will pursue their goal of a radical Islamic empire that stretches from Spain to Indonesia," President Bush said. "If I did not think our mission in Iraq was vital to America's security, I'd bring our troops home tomorrow."