TWAW: Accommodation without reconciliation
TOM FOREMAN: Whether you were ever for the war in Iraq or not, everyone ought to be thankful for what is happening there right now, a dramatic drop in violence, with attacks against U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians at their lowest levels since February of last year. By any standard this is good news, but can it continue?
CNN's Michael Ware is in Baghdad. Barbara Starr is at the Pentagon and with me in Washington "New York Times" chief military correspondent Michael Gordon. He's also the co- author of "Cobra Two," a well-regarded history of the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Let me start with you Michael Gordon. Right now we have what almost everyone says is real progress of a sort. What do we need critically now to keep it going?
MICHAEL GORDON, THE NEW YORK TIMES: Right, there's been a clear trend towards diminution of violence in Baghdad and other parts of Iraq, although Iraq is still a very violent place. The key question now is what needs to be done to sustain it, lock it in and drive the levels down further and I think a number of things need to be done, there's not any one factor.
A big part of it is, one reason the violence has gone down is a lot of the people who used to be insurgents and were fighting the Americans are now working with the Americans, these Sunni volunteers at Anbar, Iskandariyah and Diyala and there's an effort afoot to basically institutionalize these arrangements and get these people on the books as police, have them work with and for the Iraqi government and that's a work in progress.
There's some real problems there and getting these Sunni volunteers who are working with American troops institutionalized as police, getting the Shiite-dominated government to kind of buy in on that is something that hasn't yet been fully accomplished and needs to be done in the months ahead.
FOREMAN: Michael Ware, is there any sense that that government is finally, finally moving toward really addressing this? You've said so many times no.
MICHAEL WARE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, it depends on who you talk to. You speak to some people, for example in the U.S. embassy who are very close to this internecine political setup that we have here and they like to think that, yes, they are seeing a few positive signs from some of the factions within this government. Nonetheless, overall, even if that is true, there's no real drift towards reconciliation.
Indeed, we've been speaking to some of the key power brokers in the major factions within this government, the Shia bloc particularly, and none of them are rushing towards reconciliation. None of them are supportive of the American-Sunni militia program and indeed I've been out with the Sunni militias. Now when you go out to visit these militias, if you're with the American military, you'll get a certain sort of answer but we've been going out there alone at their request and meeting them on the streets, by themselves, and they give a very frank answer. They are deeply opposed to the Iraqi government, which is what the government feared and now America has 72,000 essentially former Sunni insurgents working for it. 45,000 of them are on the U.S. government payroll and most of them are opposed to this Iraqi central government, Tom.
FOREMAN: Let's take a look at these numbers and why they're impressive. It's a little bit confusing but here is what you need to look at. This is the period of time before the mosque was bombed that started this giant spate of violence. Look at how low violence had generally dropped. The mosque bombing occurred about in here and things went up and up and up, but here's where we are now, back to about the same point as then. Barbara, when people in the Pentagon look at these numbers, they have to be very happy and very concerned about precisely what Mick was talking about.
BARBARA STARR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, very happy, I don't think so, not just yet, an awful lot of caution about it, because of all the things that Michael is mentioning. Top commanders, you haven't heard anybody go out there really and, you know, sound a cheering horn or, you know, carry balloons about all of this. They are very cautious. They are very concerned and I would follow on what Michael said even further. I think the silence about the Maliki government is absolutely deafening. A few months ago we were hearing the president, Secretary Gates, everyone talk about really pressuring the Maliki government to get moving. You don't hear any of that anymore. All the chips are with this local effort and if that does not work over the long-term, it's difficult to see what will happen.
FOREMAN: Michael Gordon, you've used a phrase to describe what's happening now, accommodation without reconciliation. What does that mean?
GORDON: Well, it's not really my phrase. It's the new mantra you get from the Bush administration and indeed from the American military in Iraq, and the military in particular is very pragmatic. They understand that there's not going to be a full-fledged reconciliation between these disparate groups in Iraq -- the Sunni, the Shia and the Kurds -- in the foreseeable future.
So in a sense, they're lowering their sights. Democracy in a unity government can be a generational objective in Iraq. What they're hoping to accomplish is some, maybe some of the steps that the legislative steps that would ease the tension. If you could do a few of those -- let's say, get de-Baathification or maybe provincial elections -- get a few of those done over the next year, take the edge off the animosity. You'd have a state where these groups wouldn't necessarily be happy with each other. You wouldn't have reconciliation, but they would stop resorting to car bombs and death squads to settle their differences. That's accommodation without reconciliation.
FOREMAN: Michael Ware, can that stay, making progress, can we continue to make progress on that, if we don't have this central government force come to the table and say, we're going to take up our responsibility?
WARE: Well, indeed, I've been talking to key U.S. strategists, both military and diplomatic here in Iraq, precisely about that. The people who run this country, the power interests, don't have it on their agendas to seek reconciliation. It's not in their interests. Now, America knows that. So what they're looking at is what's happening on the streets, where you're seeing neighbor accommodate with neighbor, reconciliation happening literally street by street, or block by block, and they want to see that grow, and that foster.
So rather than what we've seen in other conflicts, where you have national political leaders bring their people to the table, what they're hoping here is that the people power will force this government to eventually change and the political players in this country to eventually move closer together.
FOREMAN: Barbara, does this change? If that's the view of what is happening right now, that you can't really count on the central government making it happen, but maybe the people can make it happen, does that change the military strategy? Briefly.
STARR: Well it does not at the moment, but here's the dilemma in the months ahead that commanders know is only going to grow. If you are talking, as Michael says, reconciliation street by street across Baghdad, across Iraq, is that the mission for U.S. combat troops? Is some soldier or Marine going to be the last man to die in Iraq for reconciliation street by street, Tom?
FOREMAN: Michael Gordon, very quickly, the last word all together on this. All of that said, with everything we're looking at now, what is the end of this war? What is the goal now?
GORDON: If you ask the military, it would be something they call sustainable stability. It would be a process where you get stability in like Anbar, or what used to be the triangle of death here, Iskandariyah, perhaps in Baquba.
FOREMAN: Not necessarily democracy, not necessarily everyone getting along, just not killing each other.
GORDON: Well, a situation where the level of violence is down, the terrorism is down, the government plods along at some pace and American forces stay there, I would say for years to come, protecting the population in backing up the Iraqi forces, who they are hoping to push in the lead over the next year.
FOREMAN: Thanks so much for coming in. Michael Gordon, Michael Ware as well and Barbara Starr, we appreciate all of your insights. Let's hope progress continues.