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McCain in Baghdad

Even when you’re in Baghdad, as I am at the moment, it’s impossible to miss the furor back home over John McCain’s visit here a few days ago. The press seems to think it has caught the Senator in a big “gotcha” over his trip to the Shorja market on Sunday. McCain (whose presidential campaign, I should disclose, I am advising on foreign policy) touted his visit to the market as evidence that the Baghdad security plan, “Operation Fardh Al Qanoon,” is working.

“Hah!,” the news corps screamed. Reporters wrote that McCain was able to visit the market only because of “heavy” extra protection and that merchants there complained that overall security conditions weren’t great. All of this true, but taken in isolation it provides a very distorted impression.

Here’s the perspective the press isn’t providing: We are in the middle of a tough, bloody war in Iraq. Throughout 2006, the war was going very badly, especially in Baghdad. Large chunks of the city were subject to a bloody campaign of ethnic cleansing, murder, and terrorism. Sunni families fled. Markets closed. Normal life ground to a halt. Those perilous trends have been stopped in the past few months and are beginning to be reversed. This is due to an increased deployment of Iraqi and American troops, and especially to the fact that Americans are no longer staying on their giant forward operating bases. They are patrollng more intensively from joint security stations and small combat outposts located in the middle of the city.

Though only three of the five extra brigades scheduled to be deployed have yet arrived in Baghdad, the offensive has already paid big dividends. A semblance of normality is returning in some neighborhoods, markets are reopening, sectarian murders and ethnic cleansings have been dramatically reduced. The situation still isn’t great, but at least the downward trend has been stopped. There have been a few big suicide bombings lately that obscure this improvement, but most of these have been outside Baghdad, where the current security operation is focused. Needless to say, coalition forces can’t magically pacify the entire country overnight—and that can’t be the measure of success or failure.

The fact that McCain was able and willing to walk around the Shorja market indicates that things are getting better, even if Iraq remains a war zone. Of course McCain had heavy security; he’s an especially attractive target for insurgents. But the market was functioning normally while he was there, and he wasn’t surrounded by bodyguards. He walked around freely without a helmet (though he was wearing body armor), and mingled with Iraqis. So did the other members of his delegation, as well as General David Petraeus, the senior U.S. commander in Iraq.

Reporters may think this was like a Sunday stroll in Central Park, but that wasn’t the view of the U.S. embassy’s security coordinator, who refused to sign off on McCain’s visit because he thought it was too risky. The Senator thought otherwise, and he made an important point with his visit. Actually, two points: first, that the situation in Baghdad is improving; second, that the news media are more intent on ridiculing rather than reporting the first bits of good news to come out of Iraq in quite a long time.



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