BAGHDAD -- On Thursday, Gen. David Petraeus addressed a gathering of hundreds of Sunni sheiks in flowing robes, including some who were attacking his soldiers around the capital not long ago. This is the new Baghdad, where security has improved as tens of thousands of former Sunni insurgents have recently turned against al-Qaida in Iraq and smashed it with U.S. help. Many of these Sunnis are now on the U.S. payroll. But no one is certain whether these security gains will hold after the extra U.S. "surge" troops are withdrawn as scheduled by next July, or whether Iraq will slip back into brutal sectarian warfare.
So I asked General Petraeus how he assessed the current situation and the post-surge future.
"I think it is going the way we wanted in Baghdad and the belts around Baghdad," he replied. "We have done considerable damage to al-Qaida in Iraq. Anbar is transformed."
Then he paused. "Tenuous is the right word to describe the situation," he said. "We are all guarded in our assessments, with a great deal of wariness about the what-might-bes."
General Petraeus is right to be both confident and wary. The security progress of recent months results largely from a new military and political strategy that reverses the haphazard, incoherent U.S. Iraq policies of the last four tragic years.
In October 2003, when I first met General Petraeus when he was commander of the 101st Airborne based in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, he was implementing a counterinsurgency strategy with this central principle: Winning over local Sunni tribal leaders was a higher priority than military action. The sheiks were given economic aid and jobs to get the economy restarted, and their men were hired into a new local security force.
Back then, though, there was no coherent U.S. political military strategy for the whole of Iraq. In Anbar province, the Sunni heartland, the U.S. focus was on military attacks, and tribal leaders were treated crudely and brusquely; in fall 2003, I heard several complain bitterly when I visited Anbar. They soon became supporters of the insurgency and al-Qaida in Iraq.
Now General Petraeus has made a new army counterinsurgency doctrine the basis of the military approach in Iraq, a doctrine that stresses flexibility and winning the support of local people.
We can now see the new doctrine in action. When tribal leaders in Anbar turned against al-Qaida in Iraq because it had started persecuting local Sunnis, and when these sheiks asked for U.S. backing, an army commander in Anbar took a chance and agreed to support them. Now the U.S. support has become massive.
General Petraeus credits "the Anbar awakening" with creating a "dramatic shift. There was a critical mass of popular opposition to al-Qaida in Anbar, and it rippled down the Euphrates Valley and around Baghdad." Now tribesmen do most of the policing in Anbar, and about 70,000 tribal fighters are assisting U.S. forces in Baghdad and elsewhere.
But the general recognizes the fear of the Shiite-led government that these groups could morph into violent Sunni militias, or be infiltrated by al-Qaida.
To co-opt the insurgency and prevent renewed fighting, there must be political progress. The whole purpose of the surge was to open a window of space and time that would permit sectarian Iraqi leaders to reconcile and help heal the country. That scenario would enable sizable U.S. troop withdrawals. But Iraqi political leaders have yet to oblige.
General Petraeus said, "The political piece is sputtering along. None of this is smooth." But he added that "there is reconciliation in many provinces in a way not yet reflected at the top."
General Petraeus recognizes that unless Sunnis feel integrated into the political system, the current security progress could unravel. Another wild card is the radical Shiite militia of Muqtada al-Sadr, which once drilled holes in heads of Sunni civilians but has been observing a cease-fire. The general said he thought the cease-fire would hold, because Mr. al-Sadr's movement was clearly "aware of the damage done to its reputation" by attacks on fellow Shiites and criminal behavior.
I asked General Petraeus how the scheduled drawdown of "surge" troops - about 22,000 - would affect the security gains. "We have to maintain the pressure on al-Qaida," he said. But he believed this could be done without adverse affects by "thinning out" U.S. units "while thickening with local forces" such as the new Sunni paramilitary, and better-trained Iraqi units.
The U.S. will sign a security agreement with Iraq in the coming year. The military would like to lower troop levels and hand off most responsibility for counterinsurgency to Iraqi troops. U.S. troops would then have a different mission, focusing on training and security assistance.
But General Petraeus' caution is well-founded. No one can clearly foresee what will develop. Yet there are now possibilities for positive change that did not exist six months ago.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her column appears Tuesdays in The Sun. Her e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Clarence Page's column will appear tomorrow.