"Up To A Point": Measuring Success In Iraq

News analysis by CBS News correspondent Allen Pizzey in Baghdad.

The coming week is almost certain to see a spate of reports ranging for grudging acceptance to outright affirmation of President George Bush's recent claims that Iraqi forces are "taking their country back."

A more realistic assessment might be the one offered by the beleaguered foreign editor in Evelyn Waugh's "Scoop" to bald statements made by his proprietor: "Up to a point, Lord Copper."

Certainly there is evidence, both statistical and anecdotal, that violence is subsiding and fragile stability is taking hold in wider areas. The death toll of Iraqi civilians and U.S. and Iraqi forces in October was the lowest it has been in about 18 months.

Stores and restaurants are re-opening in parts of Baghdad that have been virtual no-go zones for a year and more.

But, and it is an important but, the people who live in many of the newly vibrant neighborhoods venture out of them at their peril.

Over the weekend the Iraqi government announced that more than 3,000 Iraqi families driven out of their Baghdad neighborhoods by sectarian violence have returned to their homes in the past three months. On the other hand the Iraqi Red Crescent Society will release a report this week showing that the number of IDPs, internally displaced persons, in Iraq now tops 2.3 million, an increase of 16 percent in the last 30 days. Sixty-five percent of them are children.

One reason for the decline in civilian deaths is undoubtedly that fewer people are dying in sectarian violence because there are fewer mixed neighborhoods left to fight over. It has also helped that radical Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr declared a ceasefire and called his forces off the street, a situation he may just as easily be able to reverse.

Mr. Bush dealt with the issue by repeating his oft-stated argument that reconciliation is going on at the local level, pointing to what he said was co-operation between Sunni and Shiite leaders to take on al Qaeda in Mesopotamia.

Certainly there is evidence of that, but the motivations may be as much connected to gaining a share of the money, weapons and attendant power that goes with taking on AQM as to actually trying to build a nation.

The arming of local tribal sheikhs may contribute to a short-term solution, but the exercise is risky to say the least. Without a strong central government to exercise authority and command loyalty, the sheikhs will have little reason to give up their arms and the political clout they provide. And even Mr. Bush concedes that the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is not coming up to the mark.

When the troop build-up, the so-called "surge," was announced in January it was supposed to give the Maliki administration a "breathing space" to bridge sectarian divides. On Friday, Mr. Bush noted that "reconciliation at the national level hasn't been what we hoped it would have been by now," and said he had "made my disappointments clear to the Iraqi leadership."

In fact, there are persistent whispers and rumors here that the Americans are so fed up with Maliki's dysfunctional government that they are willing to let him slide. There is evidence that Ayyad Alawi, who was Interim Prime Minister before elections is positioning himself to make a grab for power.

What that all adds up to is a recipe for creating a kind of "Lebanon on the Tigris" with warlords holding more sway that politicians and a central government divided along sectarian lines, capable of little more than political infighting.

Mr. Bush said Iraqis were now responsible for security in 8 of Iraq's 18 provinces, but neglected to mention that some months ago he said they would take over all eighteen by the end of this year. Predictions are that it will take at least until July next year for that goal to be even close to being reached.

As further proof of how well things are going, Mr. Bush did what commanders here say they hate to do, but often indulge in nonetheless. He offered a body count as a measure of success. American troops, he claimed, had killed or captured an average of more than 1,500 "enemy fighters" per month since January.

Cynics might suggest, and not without some justification, that the count is based on the premise that anyone killed in a raid or an air strike is an "enemy fighter" until proven otherwise. And since no one knows how many fighters AQM or other insurgents actually command, the body count means little beyond underscoring that the fighting goes on.

Whether the "tide has turned" or is merely ebbing is a judgment call at best, and those in a position to judge are not celebrating yet. As a military briefer in Bagdad put it: "Iraq remains beset by many challenges."

Another way of saying "up to a point."