Is the US Winning?
Boonsboro, Md.: When will it be okay to state that we are winning in Iraq and all the naysayers ("the war is lost") were wrong? Even the New York Times is admitting things are going well.
Thomas E. Ricks: Well, things are going better. I just got back from Baghdad last week, and it was clear that violence has decreased. But it hasn't gone away. It is only back down to the 2005 level -- which to my mind is kind of like moving from the eighth circle of hell to the fifth.
I interviewed dozens of officers and none were willing to say we are winning. What they were saying is that at least now, we are not losing. But to a man, they were enormously frustrated by what they see as the foot-dragging of the Baghdad government.
Why is violence down?
Bethesda, Md.: Tom, I note you were in Iraq last week and I am really interested in your perspectives on the security in Baghdad and its sustainability. My understanding is that the neighborhoods are safer but am wondering if that's because they have been walled off and ethnically cleansed.
Thomas E. Ricks: Yes, one reason that the city is quieter is because of the presence of American troops. But yes, another reason is that some Sunni neighborhoods are walled off, and other Sunni areas have been ethnically cleansed. In addition, the Shiite death squads, in addition to killing a lot of innocents, also killed some of the car bomb guys, I am told.
Where is Iraq going, in political terms? Currently, nowhere. That is the worrisome stalemate I wrote about in last week's article. The U.S. is placing great hope in bottom up movement, and many officials think that provincial elections will break the political logjam.
Kingston, Ontario: Mr. Ricks: Here's a two-part question. Do you think that the success in reducing violence in Iraq is because of a decisive breakthrough against the insurgency, or are the insurgents just biding their time? And do you have the sense that the Americans have any control at all over the political process in Iraq, or are the Iraqi factions just pursuing their own strategies? Thanks.
Thomas E. Ricks: Well, that's the big question. Are the warring sides standing down until Uncle Sam gets out of the way?
The Sunnis have largely stopped fighting while they seek to cut a deal to get a place at the table in post-Saddam Iraq. And the Shiites have stopped fighting the Americans for at least six months, they say -- and why not? With the Sunnis standing down, Uncle Sam would be focusing all his firepower on the Shiites.
But what if the Sunnis get sick of waiting? And what happens when U.S. forces start declining in number next year?
The administration's "plan"!
Fort Bragg, N.C.: Two questions, and maybe I'm not looking for an answer. What is the administration's current goal/expectation when all in Iraq is said and done? And if we expect to have 50,000 or so military troops (and the unknown number of U.S.-paid contractors supporting the troops), many to maintain the "peace" in Iraq (vs. "fighting terrorism/terrorists"), have we accepted that those troops aren't available for anything else, and that one-year rotations will be damned expensive to maintain? And thanks for your excellent reporting and taking time to answer chat questions.Now Thomas Ricks is no antiwar lefty but you will notice that he is saying many of the same things we have been saying here. One of the complaints we have had about the media is that it continues to give voice to those who have been wrong, think Bill Kristol, while ignoring those who have been right from the beginning.
Thomas E. Ricks: A shout-out from Fort Bragg!
I think the Bush Administration's plan is to pass off Iraq to the next administration. They know it isn't going to end on their watch. I think what they would like is to pass along a situation that wouldn't force a Democratic president to pull the plug immediately. As you say, that means aiming to have a force of perhaps 50,000 troops in Iraq by the middle of 2009.
But I've heard generals talk about big troop cuts in Iraq for more than four years now. (The first story I did on this was, I think, in Oct. 2003.) So I will believe it when I see it.
Princeton, N.J.: Obviously not everyone in the media should resign, but it is annoying to having The Post (and others) regularly publish articles by those who were wrong, wrong, wrong, but those who were right about Iraq (e.g. Feingold) still get short shrift.
Thomas E. Ricks: Yes, I agree with you. There are a few people out there who should have the decency to follow the advice of the king of Spain [who recently told Hugo Chavez to "shut up"].