For every two steps forward in Iraq, there is also a step backward.
The recent news has been heartening. For the last three weeks, attacks have been at the lowest level since early 2004, and May was the lowest casualty month for U.S. forces since the war began. However, the latest security improvements have complicated life for American representatives assigned to negotiate a status of forces agreement with the Iraqi government.
This bilateral agreement is supposed to provide authority for U.S. forces to remain in Iraq in 2009 and beyond, replacing a U.N. Security Council resolution that is due to expire at the end of the year. President Bush had hoped to finish negotiations by July, but that deadline seems likely to slip. The problem is that Iraqi politicians are resisting many of the conditions that Washington feels it needs.
Sticking points include whether the U.S. will continue to control Iraqi airspace, whether U.S. soldiers and private security contractors will maintain immunity from Iraqi prosecution, and whether the U.S. will continue to have the freedom to carry out combat operations and to detain terrorist suspects without Iraqi approval.
From Washington's perspective, these are measures necessary to ensure the safety of U.S. troops as long as a substantial number of them remain in the war zone. U.S. commanders could not in good conscience continue to fight with too many restrictions on their ability to protect their soldiers and accomplish their mission.
So why are Iraqi leaders trying to hinder the very military operations that have been making their country safer and thus strengthening their own authority?
One factor is the approach of Iraqi elections -- provincial elections this fall, national elections next year. In the competition for votes, Iraqi politicians want to flaunt their nationalist credentials, and one of the surest ways to do that is to make a public show of not being patsies for the Americans.
Another factor is the U.S. presidential election. Iraqis know that they can count on the support of the Bush administration, but they are reluctant to make a deal with a lame duck, especially because Barack Obama, should he win, might well renounce any bargain struck now.
A third factor is growing Iraqi complacency. With Iraqi troops performing better recently in Basra, Sadr City and Mosul, Prime Minister Nouri Maliki may be starting to think that he doesn't need the Americans after all. Maybe the Iraqis are ready to go it alone. The U.S. high command inadvertently has encouraged this illusion by stressing Iraqi contributions in its public pronouncements while downplaying the role Americans still play.
In reality, while Iraqi troops are becoming much more capable, they still rely on U.S. assistance for key "enablers" such as logistics, surveillance, communications and air support. Without that help, which is coordinated by U.S. advisors embedded with Iraqi units, Iraqi security forces -- no matter how brave and dedicated -- would be hard put to operate successfully against such hardened terrorists as Al Qaeda and the extremist Shiite factions known as "special groups." American troops also serve a vital function as a buffer between sectarian groups still suspicious of one another.
It's true that fewer American combat troops are needed. The security situation continues to improve, notwithstanding the withdrawal of three of five "surge" brigades (the fourth is now leaving and the fifth will depart next month), ultimately reducing U.S. troops from 170,000 to about 140,000. But the contributions of U.S. logistics people, advisors, air crews, intelligence collectors and other specialists continue to be as important as ever. It will be years before the Iraqis are able to take over some of these functions.
The gap between the Iraqi and U.S. positions is hardly unbridgeable. It should be quite possible to come up with face-saving work-arounds that would allow the Americans to get the terms they need while allowing the Iraqis to save face. For instance, while U.S. units now can detain terrorist suspects on their own, those detentions eventually have to be approved by a joint board of Iraqi and U.S. officers. In the future, the initial detention decision could be subject to the oversight of that same board.
But in order to reach an accord, the U.S. will need to do a better job of diplomacy -- never a strong suit of this administration. The Iraqis, for their part, will have to overcome the intoxication produced by recent victories and come to a realistic appraisal that they will need substantial American support for years to come.