May 1, five; May 2, three; May 3, zero; May 4, zero; May 5, zero; May 6, two; May 7, zero. That was the tally of U.S. casualties in Iraq. May became the lowest month for U.S. casualties in Iraq since February 2004, when there were 20. Last month 21 U.S. soldiers were killed-17 in hostile fire, three from non-hostile injuries, one when he was struck by a hit-and-run driver in Chicago while on leave from Iraq. One year ago the Pentagon reported 127 casualties in the month of May. April figures were 52 in 2008 compared with 104 one year ago.
This is good news that refreshes war-weary bones. When those in authority learn from their mistakes and change course, as the Bush administration did 18 months ago, we prosper. Let us pause and thank God for our fighting men and women who today are alive because Robert Gates took over the Pentagon in December 2006, in January named Gen. David Petraeus commander in Iraq, and embraced a troop surge and new fighting tactics that have brought security to once-hostile sections of Baghdad and elsewhere.
Good war generals worry most when victory seems nearest. Long odds encourage long chances. Lee was most dangerous when he was most cornered, Grant knew, and Grant said the eight-month siege of the Confederate capital that eventually led to the surrender at Appomattox was perhaps his "most anxious" time of the war. "I was afraid, every morning, that I would awake from my sleep to hear that Lee had gone," he wrote. As Lee's army bled, it became lighter, faster, more desperate-so too al-Qaeda.
Sinister forces remain in Iraq. Yet as President Bush met in May with Iraqi leaders during the World Economic Forum, I harbored hope that one of the things on the agenda was bringing the war to a close. At a later speech to the 82nd Airborne Division gathered for review at Fort Bragg, the president was explicit, laying out four conditions for "success in Iraq":
- a country that can protect its own people
- one that supports itself economically
- a democracy that governs itself effectively and responds to the will of its people
- and a country that is an ally of the United States in the war on terror.
The president acknowledged "tough fighting ahead" and cautioned against "withdrawal from Iraq before we have achieved success." But look at the ways the four-point test already is being met:
- Iraqi forces showed marked progress in pushing back militants in Basra in April and in May driving al-Qaeda from one of its few remaining strongholds in Mosul.
- Iraq is at its highest oil production and export levels since the war began five years ago. With per barrel prices at historic highs, the Iraqi government has "an enormous revenue windfall," according to Stuart Bowen, special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction. Oil revenues this year were estimated at $35 billion. They are more likely to be $60 billion. "The Iraqis have a budget surplus," said U.S. Comptroller General David Walker. "We have a huge budget deficit. . . . One of the questions is who should be paying."
- Iraq's parliament has passed a pension law, a de-Baathification reform bill plus an amnesty law, and a new budget. Corruption and infighting remain but self-governance is attainable.
- An Iraq-U.S. agreement hammered out last year means continued U.S. bases in Iraq-and a post-war security presence. It should not require the level of deployments-or casualties-Americans have grown accustomed to. Already three brigades have come home without being replaced.
On Oct. 31, 1968, President Lyndon Johnson halted bombing over North Vietnam, an obvious bid to pitch the election Hubert Humphrey's way. Nixon followed suit in 1972, with his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, announcing "peace at hand" on reelection eve-and the traditional "October surprise" was born. Let us in this election year continue the tradition. May it come early. And may it prove lasting.
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