Twenty-eight months after US forces helped pull down the statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad's Firdos Square, the Bush administration is facing a hard reality: its vision for Iraq's immediate future may need to be scaled back.
For one thing, Baghdad isn't going to be the seat of a new Jeffersonian democracy anytime soon. The transitional government's struggles to draft a new constitution have revealed deep fissures among Iraq's Kurds, Sunnis, and Shiites.
The nation's economy isn't soaring either. Estimates of unemployment range from 27 to 40 percent.
Iraqi's security situation hardly needs elucidation. In the US, the media are full of conflicting reports of when American troop withdrawals may occur.
The United States itself, at its founding, took years to become politically stable. The bottom line is that it may be at least that long, if not longer, before it is apparent whether there is any historical equivalence between the Philadelphia of 1776 and the Baghdad of 2005.
"I think it's very fragile. I'm very worried," says Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and a former advisor to the US occupation authority in Iraq.
In Washington, US officials described the Iraqi transitional government's failure to meet its constitution-drafting deadline as a bump in the road, nothing more. President Bush said Monday that he was sure that Iraqi Kurds, Shias, and Sunnis would eventually reach consensus on the remaining issues, and that their continued efforts are "a tribute to democracy."
Under intense US pressure, negotiators could well come up with some kind of eventual compromise, note some critics. But there has been little Iraqi national public debate over the nature of their proposed government, due to tight drafting deadlines and the dire nature of security. And remaining disagreements focus on fundamental aspects of the new Iraq, such as the power of the central government.
The desire of some Shia leaders for a large semi-independent region could well be a deal-breaker, predicts Dr. Diamond, who recently published a book on the US effort to bring democracy to Iraq. Sunnis would be unlikely to accept it, he says, and national disintegration might follow.
"That's how Nigeria fell into civil war in the 1960s," says Diamond.
Meanwhile, statistics bearing on Iraq's reconstruction portray a mixed picture. Insurgent violence is clearly taking an economic toll. Contractors and aid donors operating in Iraq report that security and insurance outlays constitute 30-to-50 percent of their total costs, according to an International Monetary Fund economic review.
Unemployment is rampant. Power generation remains sporadic and short of stated goals. Iraq produced an average of 106,713 megawatt hours of electricity in July, according to the Brookings Institution - up from a comparable figure of 102,525 in June, but still under the 120,000 objective. Soaring oil prices, however, have buoyed Iraq's bottom line. While GDP is predicted to go up only 3.7 percent this year, growth might accelerate in 2006 and 2007, according to the IMF.
"Iraq's medium-term outlook appears satisfactory as long as expansion in oil production proceeds without undue interruption and world oil prices remain at favorable levels," concludes an IMF staff report.
Much, if not everything, depends on the course of the insurgency. For the part of the US, a steady drain of casualties is contributing to falling support for the war in general, and for President Bush's Iraq policies in particular. Last week, an Associated Press-Ipsos poll found just 38 percent of respondents approved of Bush's handling of the war.
As it looks towards mid-term elections next year, the administration is beginning to lower expectations for what it can achieve in Iraq, according to Sen. Joseph Biden (D) of Delaware, senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a possible presidential candidate in 2008.
"We have really run out of runway," said Sen. Biden Tuesday in a broadcast interview.
Leaks from the Pentagon have hinted at major troops withdrawals by next spring. President Bush, on the other hand, has cautioned against any pullout hopes.
Given the political realities in the US, substantial troop withdrawals by next year "are pretty much inevitable," says Ivo Daalder, a senior fellow in foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution. The current force level of 140,000 US troops is just not sustainable for much longer, says Daalder. While numbers might actually go up prior to next year's elections for a permanent Iraqi government, they may then fall to around 70,000 or so.
"The president has no incentive, political or otherwise, to talk about withdrawal now," says Daalder. "He'd want to talk about it after we succeed in some significant way."