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As bad as it seems

Joe Biden
L.A. Times-Washington Post News Service

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is right to warn about the consequences of failure in Iraq. But he is fundamentally wrong when he argues that those potential consequences require us to stick with a failing strategy.

It is precisely because the stakes are so great that we must change course in Iraq, now.

McCain wrote that the president’s strategy is beginning to show results but that most Americans don’t know it because the media cover the bad news, not the good news. Of course, reporting any news in Iraq is an extraordinary act of bravery, given the dangers journalists must navigate every day. But the fact is, virtually every “welcome development” McCain cited has been reported, including the purported anti-al-Qaida alliance with Sunni sheiks in Anbar, the establishment of joint U.S.-Iraqi security stations in Baghdad and the decision by Muqtada al-Sadr to go to ground ” for now.



The problem is that for every welcome development, there is an equally or even more unwelcome development. For example:

– While violence against Iraqis is down in some Baghdad neighborhoods where we have “surged” forces, it is up dramatically in the belt ringing Baghdad. The civilian death toll increased 15 percent from February to March. Essentially, when we squeeze the water balloon in one place, it bulges somewhere else.

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– It is true that al-Sadr has not been seen, but he has been heard, rallying his followers with anti-American messages and encouraging his thugs to take on American troops in the south. Intelligence experts believe his militia is simply waiting out the surge.

– Closing markets to vehicles has precluded some car bombs, but it also has prompted terrorists to change tactics and walk in with suicide vests. The road from the airport to Baghdad may be safer, but the skies above it are more lethal ” witness the ironic imposition of “no-fly zones” for our own helicopters.

The most damning evidence that the “results” McCain cites are illusory is the city of Tal Afar. Architects of the president’s plan called it a model because in 2005, a surge of about 10,000 Americans and Iraqis pacified the city. Then we left Tal Afar, just as our troops soon will leave the Baghdad neighborhoods that they have calmed.



This month, Tal Afar was the scene of some of the most horrific sectarian violence to date: a massive truck bomb aimed at the Shiite community led to a retaliatory rampage by Shiite death squads, aided by the Iraqi police. Hundreds were killed.

The administration hopes that the surge will buy time for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government to broker the sustainable political settlement our military views as essential to lasting stability in Iraq.

But there is no trust within the government, no trust of the government by the people it purports to serve and no capacity on the part of the government to deliver security or services.

In short, the most basic premise of the president’s approach ” that Iraqis will rally behind a strong central government that looks out for their interests equitably ” is fundamentally and fatally flawed.

If the president’s plan won’t work, what will? History suggests only four other ways to keep together a country riven by sectarian strife:

We allow or help one side to win, which would require years of horrific bloodletting.

We perpetuate the occupation, which is impossible politically and practically.

We promote the return of a dictator, who is not on the horizon but whose emergence would be the cruelest of ironies.

Or we help Iraq make the transition to a decentralized, federal system, as called for in its constitution, where each major group has local control over the fabric of its daily life, including security, education, religion and marriage.

Making federalism work for all Iraqis is a strategy that can still succeed and allow our troops to leave responsibly. It’s a strategy I have been promoting for a year.

I cannot guarantee that my plan for Iraq (detailed at http://www.planforiraq.com) will work.

But I can guarantee that the course we’re on ” the course that a man I admire, John McCain, urges us to continue ” is a road to nowhere.

Joe Biden, D-Del., is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination.


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