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It May Be Spreading.

We don't have access to perfect data on the Iraq war. No one is able to present the complete picture to us. It's hard to get the problem to come into focus. It's like looking at a pointillist painting: you keep wanting to back up a little further, back up, back up and uh oh, too far, now it's just a blur I have to squint to see at all.

I end up relying on a very subjective instinct for what the real picture shows. I try to keep my antennae tuned for the stories that will matter, to pick out the stories and databits that matter. To drag the pointillist metaphor out a little too far, I'm looking for the drops of paint that form the faces, the major elements of the picture, and not just the background foliage.

I think this is one:

BAGHDAD, Oct. 11 — In a number of Shiite neighborhoods across Baghdad, residents are beginning to turn away from the Mahdi Army, the Shiite militia they once saw as their only protector against Sunni militants. Now they resent it as a band of street thugs without ideology.

The hardening Shiite feeling in Baghdad opens an opportunity for the American military, which has long struggled against the Mahdi Army, as American commanders rely increasingly on tribes and local leaders in their prosecution of the war.

The sectarian landscape has shifted, with Sunni extremists largely defeated in many Shiite neighborhoods, and the war in those places has sunk into a criminality that is often blind to sect.

Interesting, no? In Anbar we're making progress because we're the only force capable of dislodging the murderous fanatics of Al Qaeda in Iraq. It's not our love of democracy that's working for us there, it's the fact that from the point of view of local Sunnis we are the lesser of evils. We manage the job of being both more deadly and less dreaded.

And now, in Shiite areas we may be seeing some progress -- slight and early and fragile -- because the US Army is a professional force not given to murder-for-profit.

While the Mahdi militia still controls most Shiite neighborhoods, early evidence that Shiites are starting to oppose some parts of the militia is surfacing on American bases. Shiite sheiks, the militia’s traditional base, are beginning to contact Americans, much as Sunni tribes reached out early this year, refocusing one entire front of the war, officials said, and the number of accurate tips flowing into American bases has soared.

Shiites are “participating like they never have before,” said Maj. Mark Brady, of the Multi-National Division-Baghdad Reconciliation and Engagement Cell, which works with tribes.

“Something has got to be not right if they are going to risk calling a tips hot line or approaching a J.S.S.,” he said, referring to the Joint Security Stations, the American neighborhood mini-bases set up after the troop increase this year.

Americans generally don't spend a lot of time studying history. So I wonder if people realize what a historical rarity it is, this military of ours. A professional, restrained, faithful and uncorrupted force that nevertheless is far and away the world's most capable killing machine. The Iraqi people seem to be noticing the difference between our army and Saddam's, and between our military and their militias.

The people and politicians calling for a quick and complete withdrawal from Iraq need to ask themselves whether their entirely justified contempt for Mr. Bush should cause them to simply dismiss what is quite clearly progress in Iraq. It was one thing when the progress was confined to Sunni areas. If the same sorts of shifts are taking place in Shiite areas as well, we need to reassess. We need always to keep a cautious, very skeptical outlook. Skeptical in big, bright, fiery letters. But in the end we have to pursue the policy that will be best not for the cause of opposition to Mr. Bush, but for the cause of the United States.

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“It May Be Spreading.”

  1. Anonymous Kevin Says:

    Gee imagine that, you set the mob loose on the Sunnis and they don't just go away when the Sunnis are all dead. I guess we have to take our good news where we can get it. And winning over the citizens of Baghdad is good news. It's just a shame that it took the successful ethnic clensing of most of Baghdad to reach this point.

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