PHILADELPHIA -- Listen carefully to what Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker say, and evaluate it against the rush of new and fairly grim studies that have been released in recent days on lack of progress in the Iraq war. Never mind the inevitable hype to follow in the White House report on Iraq; focus on the snapshot General Petraeus and Mr. Crocker are giving Congress this week.
Then do one more thing. Think carefully about what's likely to follow a complete U.S. withdrawal over, say, the next year. I foresee a civil war like Lebanon's 15-year sectarian bloodbath, a war fueled by Iraq's neighbors that strengthens Islamists throughout the region who seek to topple our Mideast oil allies. We made this mess, and Iraqis' blood will be on our hands. In a failed Iraqi state, Sunni terrorists will find a haven, and Iran's influence will grow. That is the backdrop against which to evaluate what Mr. Crocker and General Petraeus say.
General Petraeus' earlier Iraq strategy was laid out for me by his top counterinsurgency expert, David Kilcullen: The "surge" was meant to provide a window of stability that would help Iraq's Sunni and Shiite leaders reconcile.
As we know now, there is scant sign of such reconciliation. Iraqi government officials have failed to meet most of the 18 benchmarks set by the White House and Congress.
So General Petraeus is shifting the focus to gains made at the provincial and local levels. This so-called bottom-up progress has occurred where Sunni tribal leaders, along with some Sunni insurgent groups in Baghdad neighborhoods and suburbs, have turned against al-Qaida in Iraq. U.S. forces are giving these groups money, and sometimes military support.
General Petraeus is also talking about efforts to link these Sunni groups to the Shiite-led central government of Nouri al-Maliki. By turning Sunni militiamen into auxiliary police, paid by the Ministry of the Interior, General Petraeus hopes they may become dependent on the central government. But Mr. al-Maliki rightly fears these Sunnis may turn against his government if the Americans leave.
However, General Petraeus and Mr. Crocker are encouraging Mr. al-Maliki to send funds and food rations to Sunni areas that have been denied money and services by the central government. They hope that act might lessen Sunni resentment of dominant Shiite political leaders.
The general and the ambassador also plan to reach out in similar fashion to Shiite tribes and urban neighborhoods with development money, especially in areas where the Mahdi militia of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has held sway. Just as al-Qaida in Iraq alienated Sunni tribes by overreaching, killing young men and seizing tribal women for brides, the thuggery of the Mahdi Army has begun to alienate many Shiites.
General Petraeus and Mr. Crocker want to build on that alienation. If increasing numbers of local Shiites and Sunnis turn against radical militias in their areas, and if they enlist tribal or neighborhood youths to serve in local police forces, this will lessen the need for U.S. troops.
The ambassador and the general know the 30,000 extra "surge" troops will have to leave by next year, because the military is too stretched to keep them. They are arguing that more time is needed before devising any timetable for a full exit.
This bottom-up strategy is inviting skepticism. The United Nations' International Organization for Migration has reported that the number of Iraqis fleeing their homes has increased, not decreased, which indicates that ethnic cleansing goes on.
Many will rightly point to the huge risk of funding and arming ex-Sunni Baathists and insurgents, who will likely become mini-warlords if there is no Shiite-Sunni reconciliation at the center. Absent such reconciliation, the Sunni insurgents we're now helping may soon be fighting the Shiite-led government we support.
U.S. officials are afraid any effort by them to oust the weak and dysfunctional Mr. al-Maliki would backfire. It's not clear we could find a better candidate, and the political system we helped create ensures any prime minister will be weak.
So, given the weakness at Iraq's center, should we still listen to what General Petraeus and Mr. Crocker say?
Yes, for two reasons. First, there really is some movement at the grass roots. I've talked to Anbar sheiks, and their main concern is to be treated fairly by the Shiites in power. Some (not all) Sunni tribal leaders are beginning to accept that Sunnis can no longer control the country, but they want a fair share of Iraq's resources.
I've also talked to Shiites who are fed up with the thuggery of the Mahdi Army. Mr. Sadr's forces overreached recently when they violently tried to take over shrines in the holy Shiite city of Karbala.
The big question is whether a longer U.S. stay could build on dissatisfaction with radicals on both sides and forge a consensus among Sunni and Shiite moderates.
If the country could limp along until 2009, there might be new possibilities for political progress. In 2009, there will be Iraqi elections. A new election law could be approved that would strengthen the provinces and open the door for better candidates.
Wishful thinking, you say. We can't keep the troops in until 2009. This brings me to the second reason to give General Petraeus and Mr. Crocker a chance: The alternatives are so awful. Once we set a timeline for withdrawal, I believe gains at the grass roots will collapse, as Sunnis and Shiites gird for a brutal struggle to fill the power vacuum we'll leave behind. Iraqi security forces will splinter along sectarian lines; any plan to leave residual forces as trainers for Iraqis will crumble.
The strategy General Petraeus and Mr. Crocker offer could be the best holding action until the White House occupant changes.
In the end, that may be the best we can achieve.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her column appears Tuesdays in The Sun. Her e-mail is email@example.com.
Clarence Page's column will return Friday.