I just returned from my fifth visit to Iraq since 2003 -- and my first since Gen. David Petraeus's new strategy has started taking effect. For the first time, our delegation was able to drive, not use helicopters, from the airport to downtown Baghdad.
I observed that our delegation "stopped at a local market, where we spent well over an hour, shopping and talking with the local people, getting their views and ideas about different issues of the day." Markets in Baghdad have faced devastating terrorist attacks. A car bombing at Shorja in February, for example, killed 137 people. Today the market still faces occasional sniper attacks, but it is safer than it used to be. One innovation of the new strategy is closing markets to vehicles, thereby precluding car bombs that kill so many and garner so much media attention. Petraeus understandably wanted us to see this development.
I went to Iraq to gain a firsthand view of the progress in this difficult war, not to celebrate any victories. No one has been more critical of sunny progress reports that defied realities in Iraq. In 2003, after my first visit, I argued for more troops to provide the security necessary for political development. I disagreed with statements characterizing the insurgency as a "few dead-enders" or being in its "last throes." I repeatedly criticized the previous search-and-destroy strategy and argued for a counterinsurgency approach: separating the reconcilable population from the irreconcilable and creating enough security to facilitate the political and economic solutions that are the only way to defeat insurgents. This is exactly the course that Petraeus and the brave men and women of the American military are pursuing.
The new political-military strategy is beginning to show results. But most Americans are not aware because much of the media are not reporting it or devote far more attention to car bombs and mortar attacks that reveal little about the strategic direction of the war. I am not saying that bad news should not be reported or that horrific terrorist attacks are not newsworthy. But news coverage should also include evidence of progress. Whether Americans choose to support or oppose our efforts in Iraq, I hope they could make their decision based on as complete a picture of the situation in Iraq as is possible to report. A few examples:
· Sunni sheikhs in Anbar are now fighting al-Qaeda. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki visited Anbar's capital, Ramadi, to meet with Sunni tribal leaders. The newly proposed de-Baathification legislation grew out of that meeting. Police recruitment in Ramadi has increased dramatically over the past four months.
· More than 50 joint U.S.-Iraqi stations have been established in Baghdad. Regular patrols establish connections with the surrounding neighborhood, resulting in a significant increase in security and actionable intelligence.
· Extremist Shiite militia leader Moqtada al-Sadr is in hiding, his followers are not contesting American forces, sectarian violence has dropped in Baghdad and we are working with the Shiite mayor of Sadr City.
· Iraqi army and police forces are increasingly fighting on their own and with American forces, and their size and capability are growing. Iraqi army and police casualties have increased because they are fighting more.
Despite these welcome developments, we should have no illusions. This progress is not determinative. It is simply encouraging. We have a long, tough road ahead in Iraq. But for the first time since 2003, we have the right strategy. In Petraeus, we have a military professional who literally wrote the book on fighting this kind of war. And we will have the right mix and number of forces.
There is no guarantee that we will succeed, but we must try. As every sensible observer has concluded, the consequences of failure in Iraq are so grave and so threatening for the region, and to the security of the United States, that to refuse to give Petraeus's plan a chance to succeed would constitute a tragic failure of American resolve. I hope those who cite the Iraq Study Group's conclusions note that James Baker wrote on this page last week that we must have bipartisan support for giving the new strategy time to succeed. This is not a moment for partisan gamesmanship or for one-sided reporting. The stakes are just too high.
The writer is a Republican senator from Arizona and a candidate for president.