Paradox for Petraeus

Gen. David Petraeus has an enviable problem as he ponders his next report to Congress about the U.S. mission in Iraq. His military surge has been so successful in reducing violence that some officials -- at the Pentagon and the State Department, not to mention in the Democratic Congress -- are wondering whether Petraeus can accelerate his timetable for withdrawal of U.S. troops.

What's clear from conversations here is that 2008 will be a year of transition in Iraq. Recent military success has only reinforced the need for political reconciliation among Iraq's factions. To that end, U.S. diplomats are planning a surge of their own starting in January, to push the Iraqi government to pass reform legislation and take more responsibility for the country's future.

Petraeus summarized the good news about security in an interview Tuesday in his office in the Republican Palace. Wearing a down jacket over his Army uniform to ward off the winter chill, he described the remarkable improvements since the U.S. troop surge reached full strength over the summer. Behind him was a chart outlining his "anaconda strategy" against al-Qaeda. Like the giant snake, Petraeus said, the American military is destroying its prey by "squeezing, squeezing, squeezing."

The U.S. commander said the level of violence in Iraq is down about 60 percent from summer's peak in every major category -- overall attacks, U.S. casualties and Iraqi civilian casualties. In Anbar province, once the epicenter of the insurgency, the number of attacks has fallen from 1,350 in October 2006 to fewer than 100 per month. Last week, there were just 12 attacks in Anbar.

Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, the deputy commander here, said in a separate interview that the fight in Iraq is increasingly "a communal struggle," with intra-Shiite and intra-Sunni battles for control of particular areas. The danger of a broad Sunni-Shiite civil war has been "reversed" for now, he said.

"None of this should be interpreted as victory dances in the end zone because this is a tough, tough endeavor," Petraeus cautioned. "And you won't find anybody in uniform who would be anything other than cautious" about troop levels.

Prodded by the Pentagon, Petraeus is preparing battle plans for 2008 based on three scenarios: further improvement, a continuation of the status quo and a regression. Improvements might speed the timetable for withdrawal; regression might mean bringing back combat units that had been withdrawn. Only if there is "irreversible momentum" toward stability, said Odierno, "we can probably then reduce at a faster rate."

The diplomatic surge will begin next month with another visit by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice -- continuing the talks she held here this week about political reconciliation. She hopes that by then, the Iraqi parliament will have passed a long-delayed de-Baathification law and that it will make progress toward provincial power-sharing and judicial accountability. Her diplomatic push will engage the broad group of Iraqi leaders known as the "Presidency Council" and not just the Shiite prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki. Her advisers hope that the governing coalition can succeed where Maliki has failed.

In January, the United States will also invite the Iraqis to negotiate a new "strategic partnership agreement" to replace the existing U.N. mandate for U.S. troops, starting in 2009. David Satterfield, Rice's special coordinator for Iraq, will ask Baghdad to appoint a negotiating team that represents all the country's factions and ministries. This new agreement will be sensitive for both sides, since it will cover everything from imprisonment of Iraqi detainees to future U.S. basing rights to Special Forces operations against al-Qaeda terrorists. Explains a senior Bush administration official: "There will be new rules of the game. There have to be. It cannot be business as usual."

U.S. officials concede that there's a tension between the political goal of full Iraqi sovereignty and the military's desire to maintain security. That friction is already evident in behind-the-scenes debates over troop levels between Petraeus and Adm. William Fallon, the chief of Central Command. These issues will come to a head in March, when Petraeus delivers his next progress report to Congress. The Catch-22 for Petraeus is that the more successful he is on the ground, the more pressure he will encounter for troop cuts that might reverse his hard-won gains.

What's ahead in Iraq, whatever the number of U.S. troops, is a messy process of sorting out political control across the country. As these power struggles take place in Najaf, Nasiriyah, Kirkuk, Basra and other cities, U.S. advisers are trying to broker peaceful compromises -- and U.S. troops are standing by to help in case violence erupts and gets out of hand. That's a preview of what to expect in Iraq, where continued American success paradoxically will mean less and less American control.

David Ignatius