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No measure of success

The Baltimore Sun

In Australia yesterday, President Bush defined success in the war on terror in Afghanistan and Iraq as "countries that can govern themselves, sustain themselves, defend themselves, listen to the people, and serve as allies in this war against extremists and murderers." By those criteria, U.S. forces would have to stay in country far longer than is acceptable.

Mr. Bush should be planning for an Iraq exit strategy instead of trying to achieve some unattainable measure of success before withdrawing troops.

But the president is looking for success where he can find it, and that took him to Iraq's troubled Anbar province this week, where he met troops, Sunni tribal leaders and officials of the al-Maliki government. His surprise visit was a prelude to next week's anticipated report to Congress by Gen. David Petraeus, the military commander in Iraq implementing the surge strategy.

Violence has been reduced in Anbar, once a haven for al-Qaida-linked jihadists, because of an influx of U.S. troops there and, more important, the decision by Sunni insurgents to help the Americans.

That is a marked shift in the cycle of violence, but the Sunnis have their own reasons for cooperating. The mayhem caused by al-Qaida operatives has killed Iraqi civilians - Sunni Arabs - as well as American soldiers. Their alliance with U.S. forces could strengthen their position against rival Shiite militias and hasten sectarian conflict once U.S. troops leave Iraq. It could also put them in a better position to demand their just rewards and services from the Shiite-dominated central government.

The Sunni alliance is a relationship of mutual convenience, not loyalty, and it doesn't necessarily mean Sunni tribal leaders and their followers who are cooperating will be able to replace American soldiers and maintain order. Or that they will want to.

There remains great distrust between local Sunnis and the government, its army and police forces. Mr. Bush talks about "bottom-up reconciliation," and cites the Sunni sheiks' cooperation as evidence of that.

But for real reconciliation to occur, Shiite militia groups would have to be disbanded, which seems highly unlikely since the independent Government Accountability Office reported this week that the Iraqi government has so far failed to meet the majority of its security goals. The report could not say whether sectarian violence in Iraq had declined, calling it too tough to measure - which suggests that any surge-related improvement may be transitory.

Indeed, no one should confuse the impact of the surge with a sustained reduction in violence. Only the Iraqis can bring about that - and to consign American troops to wait it out is to ensure more U.S. deaths, not success, regardless of how one defines it.

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