The New York Times
Progress in Iraq
By WILLIAM SAFIRE       May 31, 2004 

WASHINGTON — Have you read the encouraging headlines from Iraq?  "Monthly U.S. Combat Deaths Down by Half in May" is one.  "Radical Shiite Cleric's Militia Decimated in Holy Cities" is another, and finally: "Iraqi Leaders, Defying U.S. and U.N. Dictates, Choose Prime Minister."

No, those were not headlines anybody could see.  In Gloomy Gus newsrooms, good news is no news.  And as Handover Day arrives in a month, casualties may well rise, the semi-truce with al-Sadr's force in Najaf may break down ("decimated" means reduced by 10 percent), and — most likely — political bickering may break into the open in the selection of an Iraqi sovereign transition government. But consider the possibility, for a change, that on our Memorial Day, we have cause for cautious optimism.

Rather than admit this, our dovish defeatists have turned themselves into the hardest of hardliners.  They ask: Why haven't we stormed Falluja instead of making a deal with the Sunni devils?  Why don't we wipe out the Sadr Shiite rebels, as we threatened to do, even if it means shooting up mosques being used as arsenals?

Of course, if coalition forces were to crack down hard on the centers of insurgency and terror — as we should — the critics now going nyah-nyah would be asking: What about the hearts and minds of innocents caught in the crossfire?  And what about the cost in U.S. lives?  The "prophets of gloom and doom," in Adlai Stevenson's phrase, want to have bad news both ways.

But the naysayers were astounded, along with the U.N.'s Lakhdar Brahimi and the White House's Robert Blackwill, when Iraqi leaders started acting last week like Iraqi leaders.  No thanks, they said to the U.N.-U.S. notion of an interim government of toothless technocrats, and rejected Brahimi's choice for the top slot.  Like real politicians, they cut a few deals and chose one of their own — a secular Shiite, not an Islamist or a Sunni or a Kurd — to be prime minister. 

Iyad Alawi is the Acceptable Arab.  At the Ambrosetti conference in Italy last year, he and Adnan Pachachi — a Sunni in his 80's close to the Saudi royals — were the only Iraqis present. They spent most of their time in close consultation with Amr Moussa, head of the Arab League. Pachachi, whose exile ended with our overthrow of Saddam, was overtly ungrateful to the Americans.

Alawi, however, was noncommittal, so I plonked myself next to him at lunch and asked who was going to run Iraq after the U.S. left.  He said only "I have a real political organization in Iraq."  Mebbeso; at any rate, this tough-minded escapee from Saddam's assassins knows how to dicker with disparate colleagues and knew precisely when to make his move.

Present and former C.I.A. types, fresh from exacting their vengeance on their hated critic, Ahmad Chalabi, are telling media outlets that Alawi has always been their asset.  This boasting by our leakiest intelligence agents is harmful to the presumptive prime minister because Alawi cannot let himself appear to be any outsider's puppet.   But apparently some of our spooks feel that settling scores and falsely claiming credit takes precedence over U.S. and Iraqi interests. 

Now the fast-fading three B's — Brahimi, Blackwill and Bremer — are joining with Alawi to put across Pachachi as figurehead president to appeal to the Arab League's Moussa.  The Kurds, who have so far been outmaneuvered by Iraqi Arabs and, as usual, abandoned by our State department, prefer the younger Ghazi al-Yawar, sheik of the powerful Shamar Arab tribe and a businessman educated in the U.S. 

The purpose of all this jockeying is to form an organization capable of holding an election in a country beset by Saddam loyalists and terrorists determined to block that election.  This will take Iraqi politicians courageous enough to risk their lives, sensible enough to work closely with coalition generals to protect the voters from the killers, and persuasive enough to enlist many more Iraqis to join the fight for freedom.

Present Iraqi leaders like Alawi are clearly asserting themselves.  We will not like all they insist upon.  But they are lurching toward a democratic decision, and despite the hand-wringing of Gloomy Gus & Company, that's real progress.