Yard by yard in Iraq

Far from Iraq, in a Boston suburb over the weekend, a hometown football team pulled off a remarkable upset that sent fans running onto the field at game's end. Down by 20 points at half-time, Belmont High recovered to win - chalking up another victory this season after a miserable two-year losing streak.

A turnaround - that great American expectation that bleak situations can right themselves - is what so many people have hoped for in Iraq. And a month from now, Iraqi parliamentary elections offer the possibility of a political turning point there.

The Dec. 15 poll differs significantly from the historic elections of the past year - in January, to select an interim government to draft the country's Constitution; and in October, to vote on that Constitution.

This time, Iraqis will vote for a permanent government with a term of four years in which to shape the country's future.

Also a change from the past: those elected to the National Assembly are likely to include a significant block of Sunnis. That minority population, in power under Saddam Hussein, boycotted January's election, but turned out in great numbers to vote against the Constitution in October (it still passed). Expectations are that Sunnis will again participate, aiming to change the Constitution and secure more power and oil wealth.

These differences give this vote, more than the others, a better chance at turning the tide in Iraq. Specifically, the hope is that once Sunnis engage in the political process and become stakeholders in a government of greater authority, they'll withdraw their support from the Sunni-dominated insurgency.

So far, political gains are frustratingly slow, but nonetheless still mark progress. It's encouraging, for instance, that Sunni political parties are now organizing for the upcoming elections - even if their platforms are virulently anti-American. And in a political climate of sectarian and ethnic strife, the emergence of two secular coalitions is another positive sign.

But Iraqi politics do not take place in a vacuum, and the disheartening reality is that political progress has not translated into fewer insurgent attacks (though they're less deadly). In fact, Al Qaeda appears to be trying to widen the conflict to other countries in the region, such as Jordan and Egypt.

It's critical that now, when Iraq is passing the last political milestone before it's on its own, the administration also set clear military benchmarks to determine progress.

Over and over, it's been said that coalition forces will leave when conditions are right and Iraqi forces are trained and equipped to fend for themselves. But those definitions and target points remain fuzzy, and even now US, Iraqi, and British officials talk vaguely about a troop drawdown beginning next year.

Progress in Iraq may be yard by yard, but there must be ways to measure it, and they must be both political and military.

The lack of defined benchmarks feeds the Iraqi fear of permanent occupation and the fears of some in the US of the dreaded word "quagmire." The time has come for the US to clearly define its military objectives in such a way that both Iraqis and the US and its allies can determine where the goal line actually is.

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