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Outside View: Is there progress in Iraq?

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by Maria Appakova
Moscow, April 15, 2008
U.S. President George Bush said last week that "significant progress" has been achieved in the past year in stabilizing Iraq.

He made the statement April 10, the day after the fifth anniversary of the fall of Baghdad, and following congressional testimony from top U.S. officials about the situation in Iraq. His comments were accompanied by continuing news reports on new clashes and acts of terror in that country.

Bush said that the surge he announced in early 2007 has fully justified itself. He admitted problems with security but concluded that "a major strategic shift has occurred."

But did he persuade anyone except his closest supporters?

During the hearings, Democrats, who have the majority in both the House and the Senate, lashed out at the president for his policy in Iraq. A number of Republicans joined them.

Many lawmakers concluded that the recent tactical successes of U.S. troops cannot conceal the fragility of Iraqi security. The main challenges remain -- national reconciliation between different political groups in Iraq has not been accomplished; the Iraqi government does not shoulder enough responsibility for what is happening in the country.

No matter how hard the president and his senior officials may try to persuade Congress and the American public that "a major strategic shift has occurred," U.S. and Iraqi losses are frightening. Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, had to admit as much during the hearings. Despite his own statements about signs of progress, he noted that the fundamental causes of religious and other conflicts have not been removed.

Petraeus had to admit that because on the eve of the hearings the situation in Iraq was sharply inflamed by an offensive by Iraqi government forces against fighters of Shiite leader Moqtada Sadr. Media reports said that the operation was planned by the Iraqis independently and was carried out by their troops with support from American and British forces. So far, U.S. military and political experts have been unable to reach a consensus about whether it was a success.

In any case, discussion of recent events pales into insignificance when both the United States and Iraq are summing up the results -- and costs -- of the war.

By the fifth anniversary of its start, U.S. casualties surpassed 4,000; about 60,000 were wounded. The war currently looks set to cost the United States up to $3 trillion by some estimates, and the prospects of any dividends from this huge investment look very vague. These figures eclipse any statements about security and economic successes for those Americans who value the lives of their compatriots and are rational about money.

There are some successes, and it would be unfair to accuse the Iraqi government of being completely idle.

Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh told The Washington Post recently that the annual underlying inflation rate had declined from 36 percent in late 2006 to 14 percent in March 2008. Moreover, he said, the Iraqi government is independently funding almost the entire recovery effort and paying a considerable share of expenses for the upkeep of its security force.

But these hundreds of millions of dollars contributions look puny compared with the growing U.S. spending on Iraq. In the meantime, Washington has other concerns, like Afghanistan, which also needs money and military resources.

Saleh's optimistic words and other statements on the restoration of the economy and the Iraqi government's control of nine provinces are lost in the host of other reports about constant clashes in Baghdad and the shelling of the "green zone," the most protected district in the capital, and probably in the whole country.

The economic news is no better. Al-Jazeera TV collected this information especially for the fifth anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion: Almost one-third of the 27 million Iraqis live beneath the poverty line; more than 60 percent of working-age people have no jobs; and corruption is rampant -- every year Iraq loses more than $4 billion because of fraud committed with the funds allocated for its recovery.

Needless to say, the United States and Iraq may accuse al-Jazeera of bias, but other statistics speak for themselves. During the past five years about 1 million Iraqis were killed, more than 3 million were injured, 2 million fled abroad and another 2.5 million were displaced inside the country.

The fact that only 923 civilians perished last month compared with 1,861 a year before in March 2007 is no consolation here. Nobody knows what will happen in April, May, or even tomorrow.

At the end of his speech Bush said, "And while this war is difficult, it is not endless." But neither he nor anyone else can say when it will end. Likewise, nobody knows what price America will still have to pay despite the progress it has achieved.

(Maria Appakova is a commentator for RIA Novosti, which previously published a version of this commentary, but the opinions in it are the author's alone.)

(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)

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Iraq removes Iraqi army, police chiefs of Basra
Baghdad (AFP) April 16, 2008
Iraq on Wednesday removed the Iraqi army and police commanders in the southern city of Basra, weeks after a crackdown on Shiite militiamen set off fierce firefights across the country.

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