The Iraq War is over.
Flames still burst from various sources and wild cards remain, such as the potential that Muqtada al-Sadr might stomp his feet and encourage his diminished militias to attack us. Yet support for Sadr among Shia is hardly monolithic. In fact, many Shia view him as a simpleton whose influence derives strictly from respect for his father. Others cite the threat from Iran, but the Iranian participation in the fighting here remains overstated.
Nobody knows what the future will bring, but the civil war has completely ended.
The Iraqi army and police grow stronger by the month, and even the National Police (NP) are gaining a degree of respect and credibility.
As recently as last year, the NPs were considered nothing more than militia members in uniform who murdered with impunity. To go on patrol with NPs was to invite attack. But the Americans worked to help alleviate the disdain.
On one occasion, US soldiers peacefully disarmed a local militia that was apparently about to ambush NPs who had harassed it the same morning, and the soldiers sent the NPs to their station and later gave the locals back their guns. The next day, we were at the NP station as the US commander, Lt-Col. James Crider, gave professional instruction to the NP commanders.
Over time, the extremely frustrating process of mentoring the NPs worked. Last week, I went on foot patrol with US forces and NPs in the same Baghdad neighborhood. Kids were coming up to say hello. And the same people who used to tell me they hated the NPs were actually greeting them.
Similar dynamics have occurred in places like Anbar, Diyala and Nineveh. Tour after tour of US soldiers carried the ball successively, further down the field.
Through time, trust and bonds have been built between the US and Iraqi soldiers, police and citizens. The United States has a new ally in Iraq. And if both sides continue to nurture this bond, it will create a permanent partnership of mutual benefit.
Surely, one could pick up a brush and approach a blank canvas using colors from the palette of truth, and, with a cursory glance, smear Iraq to look like a Third World swamp. But Iraq is a complicated tapestry with great depth and subtle beauty. This land and its people have great potential to become a regional learning center of monumental importance.
Iraqis are tired of war and ready to get back to school, to business and to living life as it should be.
Last week, I shed my helmet and body armor and walked in south Baghdad as evening fell. The US soldiers who took me along were from the battle-hardened 10th Mountain Division; about half the platoon were combat veterans from Afghanistan and/or Iraq. Though most were in their 20s, they seemed like older men. None had even fired a weapon during this entire tour, which so far has lasted more than eight months, in what previously was one of the most dangerous areas of Iraq.
Americans and Iraqis had, in those earlier times, been killed or injured on the very streets we patrolled that day. Patched bullet holes pocked nearly every structure as if concrete-eating termites had infested, and there was resonance of car bombs once detonated on these avenues.
Now, the SOI (Sons of Iraq; what pessimists used to scathingly call "America's Militias") are monitoring checkpoints. I talked with an SOI boss and found that he was getting along side-by-side with the neighborhood NP commander, and in fact they were laughing together. Those who derisively called the SOI "America's Militias" have lost much credibility, while the commanders who supported the movement have earned that same credibility.
Though we are still losing American soldiers in Iraq, the casualties are roughly a tenth of previous highs. Attacks in general are down to about the same.
I asked some Iraqis, "Why are the terrorists attacking mostly Iraqis instead of Americans?" One man explained that the terrorists see the Iraqi army getting stronger and unifying with police, and the terrorists fear the Iraqi government.
Focusing on a few "Iraqi trees," one could make the argument that the war is ongoing and perilous. But to step back and look at "the forest," one cannot escape the fact that Iraq's long winter is over, and the branches are budding.
Iraqis and Americans aren't natural enemies. We have no reason to fight each other, and we understand each other far better than we did back in 2003. True bonds have been formed. Iraq and America realize that we have every reason to cooperate as allies.
But the greater, much more important, milestone will be the day when American, British and Polish students are studying in Iraq, while Iraqi students are studying in our countries. Cementing these ties takes time and patience. But we can do it.