For most Iraqis it has been a very long three years since President George Bush stood on the deck of an aircraft carrier and infamously announced "mission accomplished." While progress has been made, it has been vicious, painful and at best halting. This is still a society out of step with its ambitions.
Security remains the biggest need, and deficit. The idea that Iraqis will take over their own defense is progressing, but at nothing like the pace, or spirit that is needed. U.S. hopes of withdrawing forces are tied to how well the Iraqi military does, and today there was a prime example of how faint those hopes are. At a passing out parade for the first all-Sunni unit, there was marching and displays of strength. An American military officer made the kind of remarks about their ability that would have been inspiring for men going into battle.
"In Iraq," the colonel said, "it is dangerous to be a soldier. But when I return to America I can tell my children and someday my grandchildren that I served with 978 men who stood up to do the right thing for their country."
The enthusiasm lasted just long enough for the men to be told that when in fact they did go into battle, they would be deployed not to their home town of Fallujah but to other towns and regions in the dangerously restive Anbar province. At that point they broke into loud protest. Some took off their uniforms. For graduating military men it was an unseemly display to say the least.
Fighting insurgents loyal to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, it seems, was not what they had enlisted to do, not least because in his Web site message a few days ago, Iraq's No. 1 terrorist had issued a direct threat to such men: "Anyone who joins (the Iraqi army) we will kill them." The graduates realized even before they left the parade ground they were going to be marching into Zarqawi's crosshairs.
The fact is, it's a wonder that anyone signs up at all. Iraqi lawmen have suffered more casualties than any other police force in the world in the past year. How well they are doing is a matter of perception.
Glitzy TV ads portray police as heroes in the fight against crime and terrorism as competent, clever and resourceful. In one a man spots a suspected terrorist, calls in to a well-ordered crisis room, and within minutes police are on the scene and shooting the bad guys. In another a worshiper leaving a mosque spots insurgents hiding an IED, throws his sandal at them and the would-be attackers flee into the arms of police, who of course, shoot them. It seldom works out quite as well as that, so infrequently in fact that the reality of daily living makes the attempt to promote the idea of the state as the ultimate protector more entertaining than inspirational.