General James T. Conway,
the Marine in charge of security in Iraq's Anbar province the Commandant of the Marine Corps [that'll teach me to pay attention to names when writing posts at 1am. I knew this], has said that US forces there could hand over control to the Iraqi government as soon as Monday, and is lauding the reduction in violence in the province. The general says that remaining US troops in the province will concentrate on bringing Sunnis and Shiites together. But the handover was intended to happen last month, though a sharp uptick in violence there delayed the event, along with a convenient sandstorm. Veteran and blogger Brandon Freidman documented that increase back in May.
While I do not profess to know exactly what change in the political climate precipitated this specific spike in violence, I do know that General Petraeus was correct when he said that the placidity in Anbar Province was reversible. What most have failed to realize thus far is that, while al Qaeda is deeply unpopular in Anbar, U.S. forces are equally despised. So it seems that those who've repeatedly used Anbar's relative peacefulness as a sign of impending U.S. success in Iraq know little about counterinsurgency and less about Iraq.
Success in Iraq is something that will be brought about by Iraqis--not the American military. As long as we're there, the best we can hope for is extreme violence broken by periodic lulls--such as what we've witnessed in Anbar over the past seven months. As long we remain in Iraq, the violence will remain cyclical. It will rise and fall, contingent on the latest deal we've cut with tribal leaders or the latest deal that someone has brokered within the Iraqi government. But our military will never completely solve this inherently Iraqi problem. We're watching that unfortunate fact unfold before us in Anbar this month.
Since then, it has become obvious what precipitated the spike - the central government's increasing antipathy towards and crackdown on the members of the Sunni Awakening. That crackdown has spread into other provinces too.
The NY Times' report on the story gives the game away - although it tries to preserve a little ambiguity. (Get too critical and you're on Col. Boylan's "not friendly" list - no more interviews for you.)
American forces were originally scheduled to transfer control in late June, but the transfer was postponed. At the time, American military officials said that a dust storm had made it impossible to fly dignitaries in for a ceremony and that the postponement was unrelated to a suicide bombing near Falluja a day earlier that killed 20 people. [At a meeting of U.S.-backed Sunni Arab tribal leaders - C]
In July, the Anbar Provincial Council asked the American military to delay turning over security for at least a year, saying that Iraqi forces were not prepared to keep tight control of the province’s borders. The appeal was widely perceived as stemming from a bitter dispute between the Iraqi Islamic Party, which has long been politically dominant in Anbar, and the increasingly powerful Awakening Council forces backed by the Americans.
... The government’s campaign has been particularly pronounced lately in the area west of Baghdad, where the Iraqi Army has arrested scores of Awakening members. Former insurgent leaders have contended that the Iraqi military is pursuing 650 Awakening leaders, many of whom have fled.
So here's what I think is happening. The Iraqi govt. wants the US out of the driving seat in Anbar so it can more easily purge the Awakening, just as the British handover in the South led to the push against the Sadrists in Basra. Bush wants the handover to happen anyway, no matter the cost in bloodshed, so McCain can claim success in Anbar at the GOP conference. In that sense, the handover is very much appeasement of the Shiite-controlled central government and abandonment of the Awakening. This betrayal hasn't gone un-noticed among Iraq's Sunni neighbours.
I know its the Iraqis' country to mess up or not, at the end of the day, but we can at least point out that the PR is..well...PR. Not victory.