WASHINGTON — The official U.S. position — as articulated by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on her way to Baghdad this weekend — is that the series of bombings that have shaken Iraq in recent days are actually a sign that the good guys are winning.
The suicide attacks, Clinton told reporters on her trip, are “unfortunately, in a tragic way, a signal that the rejectionists fear that Iraq is going in the right direction.”
Americans hope she is correct. As the U.S. proceeds with plans to withdraw its combat forces from Iraq, it is clear that victory there is not secured. The month’s violence was a reminder of the political and sectarian divisions that still torment Iraq, and of the ability of even small groups of jihadists to cause turmoil.
Iraq is “a work in progress,” King Abdullah of Jordan told an audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington on Friday. While he and other leaders from the region are optimistic, he said: “It is going to take a long time.”
Nerves are on edge here because — aside from the massive investment in money and lives that the United States has made — American foreign policy in the Middle East is now built around the notion that peace in Iraq is attainable, thus eventually freeing up the 140,000 U.S. troops currently in Iraq to be shifted to Afghanistan and other missions.
Gen. David Petraeus, testifying on Capitol Hill on Friday, warned that “as we increase our focus on, and efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan, we must not lose sight of other important missions.
“There has … been substantial progress in Iraq, but numerous challenges still confront its leaders and its people,” said Petraeus, the U.S. commander for the region.
Petraeus told a House subcommittee that a group of jihadists from Tunisia had infiltrated Iraq and were responsible for some of the recent violence. “There may be others,” he said.
In a report on Iraq, updated amid this week’s violence, CSIS analyst Anthony Cordesman said that during the period that troops transition out of Iraq, the U.S. will face “a Pandora’s box of problems” which “may be as challenging as defeating Al Qaeda.”
Iraq’s Shiite majority is still fragmented, the country's government is plagued by inefficiency and corruption, and its security forces are in need of considerable improvement. The historic enmity between Shiites and Sunnis still exists, ripe for exploitation by U.S. foes — as happened this week, when Shiite mosques were struck.
“No one … can yet be certain that Iraq will achieve enough political accommodation” to deal with its internal divisions, Cordesman said.
The U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. Ray Odierno, blamed the wave of fresh violence on “small and decentralized” Al Qaeda cells, and promised that U.S. troops “will assist the government of Iraq (in) going after these networks and these individuals.”
Odierno told Pentagon reporters that he still believes the United States will meet its goal of withdrawing American combat units from Iraq’s urban centers by the end of June.
The exception, he said — “the one area I’m not sure about” — is Mosul, Iraq’s third largest city.
Odierno acknowledged concerns about security in Iraq, but noted that the latest tactics — terrorists using women as bombers, and in one case a woman holding a child by the hand — are difficult to combat.
On the other hand, the cruelty of such tactics alienate Iraqis, Odierno said. “Al Qaeda is not getting the response they want.”
Clinton did not rush to Iraq for emergency consultations: Her trip there this weekend was unannounced, but pre-planned.
Yet, like President Barack Obama’s quick stop in Iraq earlier this month, Clinton’s visit was intended to assure the Iraqis that the U.S. has not forgotten them, and to keep a close watch on events there.
With a renewed commitment of forces to Afghanistan, and a newly aggressive Taliban in Pakistan, a return to the levels of previous violence in Iraq is the last thing the Obama administration needs as it pushes Congress for billions of dollars to fund military and civic operations in those three countries.
“We are committed to Iraq; we want to see a stable, sovereign and self-reliant Iraq,” Clinton told Iraqis at a town meeting.
Clinton met with the new U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Christopher Hill, and the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, in Iraq, and conferred and held a press conference with Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki.
Read more about Iraq:
The ground truth from Mosul
New space for politics
For Which It Stands: Iraq