Give new Iraq strategy a chance -- and close scrutiny
President Bush is sending nearly 22,000 more U.S. troops to Iraq to secure Baghdad and combat insurgency in a western province.
MOST Americans are understandably skeptical of President Bush's new strategy for the war in Iraq but also realize that a hasty withdrawal of U.S. troops would create a bloodbath of enormous dimensions. A temporary increase of troop levels and a series of benchmarks for the Iraqi government to meet could bring positive results, but only if benchmarks for Iraqis include consequences and the new Congress engages in aggressive oversight. Bush cautioned Iraqis that America's commitment is not open-ended.
The president said he will send 17,500 combat troops -- five brigades -- to help Iraq troops confront the Mahdi Army, the most feared Shiite militia, in the Sadr City slum of Baghdad, and 4,000 Marines to the western province of Anbar, the base for Sunni insurgency and foreign al-Qaida forces. They will join the 132,000 troops now in Iraq. Three new Iraqi brigades are to be assembled in the next month.
The potential success of the strategy should be evident within a few weeks, because it will depend on the cooperation of the Iraqi government. The Iraq Study Group pointed out that Iraq Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had "taken little meaningful action" to curb the Mahdi Army.
The militia is led by cleric Maqtada al-Sadr, whose support was important to al-Maliki's election. Al-Maliki ordered U.S. forces in November to abandon Baghdad checkpoints and roadblocks they had set up in their search of a missing American soldier. Last month, he ignored U.S. requests that Saddam Hussein's execution await the clarification of legal issues.
The Bush plan calls for Iraqi forces to take the lead in military operations to secure Baghdad, with a battalion of 600 to 700 American forces accompanying each Iraqi battalion. The question is whether al-Maliki will confront the Shiite militias, and the answer should come fairly soon.
Rep. Neil Abercrombie has stated his opposition to appropriating more money for the increase in U.S. troop levels, and Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., has promised legislation to deny such funding. Such a restriction probably would infringe on Bush's constitutional power as commander in chief. Instead, the Democratic-controlled Congress is likely to propose nonbinding resolutions opposing the new course.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said the White House should not have a "blank check" for its conduct of the war -- as it received throughout the past four years from a Republican Congress. But neither does Congress present a sure obstacle to the Bush administration's ability to go forward with the new strategy.
Democrats, with their narrow majority, should conduct hearings about the administration's war conduct through every step of the way. Pelosi has promised "the harshest scrutiny," which is appropriate. The strategy's success or failure should become apparent through such oversight.