Iraq: Two Years Later

It's been two years since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq that toppled Saddam Hussein's regime, and while there's still no sign of the weapons of mass destruction that the war was ostensibly launched to eradicate, the Bush administration can point to some crucial signs of progress.

Chief among them is the recent Iraqi election that was widely hailed as a successful first step in establishing democratic rule in the onetime dictatorship.

While minority Sunni Muslims, who once ruled Iraq, largely boycotted the vote, and fear of violence kept many voters home, the election did bring millions of Iraqis to the polls. And this week, for the first time in a half-century, an Iraqi parliament met to form a new government and draft a permanent constitution – with a Shiite prime minister and a Kurdish president, and hopes of bringing in a Sunni leader as speaker of the parliament.

President Bush hailed the opening of the parliament Wednesday as "a bright moment" in Iraq's history.

At the same time, there's been no let-up in the violent, anti-American insurgency that continues to wreak havoc throughout much of the country – and no slowdown in the death toll that now numbers at least 1,515 Americans killed in Iraq since the war's start, according to an Associated Press count.

Mr. Bush's so-called "coalition of the willing" is also rapidly unraveling amid mounting casualties and kidnappings that have stoked anti-war sentiment around the world.

This week, Italy, a staunch U.S. ally, became the latest nation to reduce its commitment in Iraq, announcing it would begin drawing down its Iraqi contingent in September.

Some 14 nations have permanently withdrawn since the March 2003 invasion, and the coalition now stands at 24. There are 22,750 foreign soldiers still in Iraq along with about 150,000 Americans.

With insurgents still mounting daily attacks on both Iraqi and American targets, there's no indication when those U.S. troops may be able to return home. President Bush said Wednesday there was no timetable for their departure.

"Our troops will come home when Iraq is capable of defending herself," the president told a White House news conference.

On Thursday, Gen. Richard A. Cody, the Army's vice chief of staff, said a substantive reduction in the number of U.S. forces in Iraq won't likely be seen until sometime between 2006 and 2008.

Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on a trip to Iraq this week, said "there's a long way to go" before Iraq will be stable enough for its own security forces to take over from U.S. soldiers.

He predicted that the Iraqi insurgency would increase as a new round of elections is held in late spring or early summer.

Myers also said that the face of the insurgency was changing, with more organized crime and criminals-for-hire appearing to take on more prominent roles, although former Saddam loyalists and foreign fighters still posed a major threat.

"There are elements of this insurgency that are a lot more criminal in nature than they are true insurgents," he said.

Nonetheless, President Bush has cited the changing situation in Iraq – along with recent elections in Afghanistan and the Palestinian territories, as well as Lebanon's uprising against Syria's occupation – as an indication that the entire Middle East is headed in "a hopeful new direction."

"The advance of hope in the Middle East requires new thinking in the region," the president said in a speech earlier this month. "By now it should be clear that authoritarian rule is not the wave of the future. It is the last gasp of a discredited past."

Those developments – and Mr. Bush's own election victory last November – have somewhat quieted the domestic opposition to the administration's Iraq and Middle East policy, with even some Democrats offering praise, however begrudgingly.

"I believe the Bush administration deserves credit for putting pressure and saying that authoritarian regimes have to go," said New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, considered a potential Democratic presidential candidate, in a broadcast interview.

Mr. Bush's stated mission of spreading democracy around the world "is working, whether it's by design or by accident," he said.

Polls show Americans have become somewhat more positive about the situation in Iraq since the January elections. A majority, 53 percent, now says things are going well for the U.S. in Iraq – the highest number since shortly after the capture of Saddam Hussein in December 2003, according to a CBS News/New York Times poll.

But 50 percent of Americans still think the U.S. should have stayed out of Iraq altogether, versus 46 percent who think military action was the right decision.

Support for the war had soared after Saddam's capture, but declined since then as U.S. casualties mounted and the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal came to light.

As for Mr. Bush's vanquished foe, Saddam remains in custody with several of his top henchmen at a U.S.-guarded detention facility near Baghdad's airport. The former Iraqi president is expected to go on trial before a special tribunal by the end of the year.

By Joel Roberts