After months of undeniable progress in Iraq, the Times finally took notice on the front page (albeit on Saturday, the least-read day of the week) by Stephen Farrell and Richard Oppel Jr., "Big Gains for Iraq Security, but Questions Linger." The reporters did a good job of detailing the genuine progress made in civilian security and Iraqi troop competence, while sprinkling plenty of caveats throughout the piece, including one in the very first paragraph.
What's going right? And can it last?
Violence in all of Iraq is the lowest since March 2004. The two largest cities, Baghdad and Basra, are calmer than they have been for years. The third largest, Mosul, is in the midst of a major security operation. On Thursday, Iraqi forces swept unopposed through the southern city of Amara, which has been controlled by Shiite militias. There is a sense that Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki's government has more political traction than any of its predecessors.
While the increase in American troops and their support behind the scenes in the recent operations has helped tamp down the violence, there are signs that both the Iraqi security forces and the Iraqi government are making strides. There are simply more Iraqi troops for the government to deploy, partly because fewer are needed to fight the Sunni insurgents, who have defected to the Sunni Awakening movement. They are paid to keep the peace.
Mr. Maliki's moves against Shiite militias have built some trust with wary Sunnis, offering the potential for political reconciliation. High oil prices are filling Iraqi government coffers. But even these successes contain the seeds of vulnerability. The government victories in Basra, Sadr City and Amara were essentially negotiated, so the militias are lying low but undefeated and seething with resentment. Mr. Maliki may be raising expectations among Sunnis that he cannot fulfill, and the Sunni Awakening forces in many cases are loyal to their American paymasters, not the Shiite government. Restive Iraqis want to see the government spend money to improve services. Attacks like the bombing that killed 63 people in Baghdad's Huriya neighborhood on Tuesday showed that opponents can continue to inflict carnage.
Perhaps most worrisome, more than five years after the American invasion, which knocked Mr. Hussein from power but set off great chaos, Iraq still lacks the formal rules to divide the power and spoils of an oil-rich nation among ethnic, religious and tribal groups and unite them under one stable idea of Iraq. The improvements are fragile.
The changes are already affecting Iraq's complicated relationship with America. In the presidential campaign, a debate is rising about whether the quiet means American soldiers can leave.
For the Times, both struggle and success in Iraq (a success due to a troop surge that the Times' editorial page warned against) means it's time to get out of Iraq.
What remains to be seen is whether the Iraqi government can capitalize on the operational successes with concrete steps that improve the lives of people in the three areas, like basic municipal services and economic opportunities. "The fear is unrealistic expectations," the American defense official said. "Services do take time."
Failure to follow through could wipe out many of the gains in places like Hayaniya, one of Basra's most deprived areas and a Sadrist stronghold, where residents already grumble that they have seen little evidence of improvement.
But the improvements in Iraq face an array of destabilizing provincial, national and regional forces. The Sunni insurgency - now in many places operating as pro-American Awakening groups - continues to wait to see whether the government makes good on promises of jobs and a less sectarian administration of security and public services and infrastructure.