Iraq's realities (whoever is president)

This week saw a serious inquiry in the US on which barriers remain to a withdrawal.

President Bush all but admitted Thursday that the US has hit another wall in Iraq. This time it's Army overstretch. He cut future tours for soldiers from 15 to 12 months. And the troop surge? It's over this summer, despite fragile security in Iraq. So what other walls still remain?

Many. And they're not all in Iraq. They range from war fatigue in the US to weak Iraqi government to the rogue militias of Muqtada al-Sadr.

The difficult task of picking which "walls" to ignore and which to break through in order to achieve a US withdrawal was the broad topic this week in Congress over two days of grilling the top US military commander and senior US diplomat in Iraq.

Most of the lawmakers' questions (including those from the three presidential candidates) simply reinforced campaign positions. Indeed, voters have crisp choices on Iraq between Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John McCain. But unlike the last grilling of Army Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker six months ago, this one had an undertone of serious inquiry as the Bush era in Iraq draws to a close.

With prospects of their party's candidate being president in nine months, lawmakers and the three candidates know they must soon shift from politicking to governing, or facing Iraq's realities as they are. A new president will enter the Oval Office and then define the type of "success" at the time that could allow a withdrawal that both corrects the war's mistakes but doesn't harm broad US interests.

General Petraeus and Mr. Crocker, as current functionaries of President Bush, could only go so far in defining that moment. They simply recommend a pause of 45 days after the surge's end this summer to assess progress.

But Crocker did spell out the potential damage in case of a "precipitous" withdrawal. These include a sectarian bloodbath in Iraq like one not seen so far, a new primacy of power for Iran in the Middle East, and a new "operating space" for Al Qaeda in its global terrorism.

Of the three presidential candidates, Barack Obama was the most inquisitive during the hearings about the extent to which the next president must accept those potential realities. He seemed to be seeking a difficult consensus with the general and the diplomat.

His fix for Iraq includes talking with Iran and using a measured withdrawal to pressure Iraqi leaders to reform. Both steps, however, depend on a success of their own or, as Petraeus would say, they are "condition based." Obama isn't clear on the exact conditions.

He asked Petraeus if "every" trace of Al Qaeda had to be eliminated in Iraq to justify a withdrawal or whether a manageable threat was OK. The general agreed that the latter was "exactly right." And the ambassador agreed with Obama's suggestion that Iran must be allowed some influence in Iraq.

The exchange hints at compromises to come. Obama's statements, like those of Mr. McCain's, seem to accept America's historic role in keeping the peace in regions such as the Middle East and not exiting Iraq for only domestic reasons. Bush appointees admit that some parts of a Democratic plan might work. The dialogue broke down political walls and may help a new president pick which "walls" in Iraq may still prevent a pullout.

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