May 22, 2008 -- As Gen. David Petraeus and Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno appear before the Senate Armed Services Committee for confirmation hearings today, things are looking up in Iraq.
Despite the recent gun battles and civilian casualties we have seen in Sadr City, there are some real signs of progress. Military officials are more optimistic now than they have been at any time since the purple-finger elections of January 2005. Consider:
-- Iraqi forces are now leading operations in Basra, Mosul and Sadr City. In each case, the Iraqis have made progress with relatively little American support. This is unprecedented: three major Iraqi-led operations in three different parts of the country.
-- Last week, the overall level of attacks in Iraq was at the lowest point since April 2004.
-- So far in May, the U.S. death rate is the lowest of the war. This is a morbid statistic that can change with a single large attack, but so far 14 Americans have been killed this month, a death rate of .76 per day, by far the lowest of the war. Five of those deaths came on May 1; another two were non-hostile. Over the last two weeks, a total of six Americans have been killed in hostile action.
-- Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's political position has never been stronger. Just two months ago, senior Iraqi officials were openly talking about replacing Maliki. There is now no such talk. Maliki currently has the backing of Sunnis, Kurds and moderate Shiites.
-- Maliki's stronger position means that Moqtada al-Sadr's party is politically isolated. For now at least, Sadr is no longer the political power broker he once was.
-- On May 8, the speaker of the Iraqi parliament, Mahmoud al-Mishhadani, wrote a heartfelt letter to President Bush, thanking the U.S. for sending the "best politicians and military commanders" to Iraq. Mishhadani urged Bush to keep Gen. Petraeus in Iraq. His letter was not reported in the Western press, but it is a significant sign of political progress. Just a year ago, Mishhadani, a Sunni, said attacks on U.S. forces are justified and called Sunni insurgents who kill American troops "heroes."
It's too early to say what all this means about troops levels, but the initial success of the Iraqis in Mosul, Basra and Sadr City raises the possibility of more troop withdrawals this fall.
There is, of course, no guarantee that these positive developments will last. Government services and economic development still lag. Iranian involvement is still a major concern. And nobody wants to repeat Cheney's infamous 2005 comment about the "last throes" of the insurgency. But we may now be seeing the most positive set of circumstances we have seen in a long, long time in Iraq.
As one usually pessimistic military official told me this morning, "Everything has broken our way over the past three months."