Saturday, March 1, 2008

Setback in Iraq Violence Trends

In February, the death toll in Iraq increased for the first time in over six months, to 721 dead (January was 541). This setback was due largely to two large suicide attacks that had recently been more rare. Nonetheless, the Bush administration plans to continue a troop draw-down throughout 2008 beyond the surge, putting US troop numbers at just under 100,000 by the end of the year.

The increase in violence is likely frustrating for General Petraeus and the Bush Administration--despite large violence reductions and apparent cooperation on the part of Anbar Sunnis and Al-Sadrite Shiites, public opinion in the US has remained bleak. Any setback in progress is likely to make the administration's current fragile shield over the Iraq issue begin to crumble to congressional pressure. Bush will need the month of March to show a return to improvement in rates of violence if he does not want to be pushed into a corner over hastier troop withdrawal.

Nonetheless, Bush certainly believes that victory (as defined in his own mind) in Iraq is not only right, but critical. Given that, we must look at his current actions and policy as an attempt to influence policy long after he leaves. Should McCain be elected, some form of the Bush policy is likely to stay in place for quite some time; a few ten thousand troops will remain in Iraq for decades to come. But if Barack Obama (who is likely to be the presumptive nominee by Tuesday night) is elected, he will carry with him a strong anti-war mandate, and a fundamental shift in foreign policy. Bush will want to secure Iraq's future before January, 2009 as best as he can.

Petraeus and Gates have not changed their previous stance that all 18 of Iraq's provinces could be fully handed-over by the end of the year; given that none of the remaining 9 have been handed over yet (and probably won't until April), much of this handing-over is going to happen increasingly close to the US presidential election in November. Furthermore, Iraqi provincial elections are tentatively slated for October, and us troop counts are likely to stay high until November and December (taking into account, of course, the mid-July end of the "Surge"). Bush is likely hoping to use the next six months to impress the American people enough about Iraq that public opinion finally begins to take a fundamental shift: away from "end" and towards "victory."

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