As I sit here at Camp Victory, the main military headquarters for U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq, I am reminded how premature that declaration of victory was after the invasion.
This is my 10th trip to Iraq, and compared to the first one, it is far more dangerous and the future is still unclear. I began making regular visits to Iraq in October 2003, embedding with U.S. troops each time. On that first trip, I flew in with Central Command Cmdr. Gen. John Abizaid. I remember him huddled with his staff on a C17 talking about the hot spots throughout the Sunni Triangle: Baghdad, Samarra, Ramadi. Abizaid was worried about the threat of foreign fighters crossing the borders from Syria, as well.
And today? Those places remain a problem and in many cases are far worse.
On average, there are 75 significant attacks in Iraq every day, and in the last three years, about 700 of those have been carried out by suicide bombers.
But the question most people want answered is this: When can American troops come home?
Late in 2004, I met a young Army specialist named Tanner. I told him that the facilities at Camp Victory had vastly improved since the early days when all the soldiers were living in tents. Soldiers had moved into hardened buildings or trailers with hot showers.
Hot meals were served at a massive and modern dining facility. I told Tanner that he should consider himself lucky. He didn't.
"Ma'am," he said. "I wish we were still living in tents, because when I look around at all this building we have done, I know it means I will probably have to come back someday."
And he is probably right.
The troops that were in the initial invasion just finished a second one-year tour, and many Marines are now on their third or fourth. Last year when I was here, Lt. Gen. John Vines who was then the No. 2 commander in Iraq said that he hoped by June of this year, the 120,000 U.S. troops then in Iraq could be reduced by around 50,000.
Since then, the numbers have grown. Today, there are 130,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, and June is only two months away.
I have heard President Bush say time and time again that as soon as the Iraqi security forces stand up, U.S. forces can stand down.
I spent the morning with two battalions or about 1,600 Iraqi Army soldiers this morning in Sadr City, the massive Shiite slum that in 2004 was the scene of massive firefights with the Mahdi militia of radical cleric Moqtada al Sadr. Two months ago, the Iraqis took over from the Americans in this sector, although they still have teams of American trainers embedded with them. They were a ragtag-looking bunch, but all risking their lives to serve their country, given they had become the No. 1 target of insurgents.
The Iraqi soldiers all complained they did not have enough weapons, or equipment or even food.
"My soldier has AK-47s," an Iraqi colonel said. "But my enemy has the capacity to defeat my soldiers."
One of the Iraqi interpreters whom I had met before when the Americans were in charge said he thought the Iraqi soldiers were capable of running missions and conducting the occasional raid in Sadr City. But he also added they would "not stand a chance with the Mahdi militia." I asked what he thought would happen if the Americans left in a year, and the interpreter said, "It would be a disaster."
That reminds me of something else from my first trip to Baghdad in the fall of 2003. Abizaid said then, as he has said so often since, that the military could not solve this, that it must be a political solution.
With the Iraqis still unable to form a government, that goal seems every bit as true now as it did back then.