Is Iraq really beginning to take a broader turn for the better? While there's been a dose of relatively good news from the war front lately, it's probably still too soon to declare mission accomplished for the new Iraq. Yet, as the Times' Eric Scmitt reports today, "Even some of the administration's toughest critics now express cautious optimism about an Iraq operation that costs more than $4 billion a month, as the nascent political process and slowly improving economy appear to drain away tacit support for the insurgency from the tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians the military calls 'fence-sitters.'
"'We've gained some real military traction over the past several months, but we'd be naove to think that the insurgency is over,' said Senator Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat and former officer in the 82nd Airborne Division. 'We're there militarily for the long haul.'"
There may be some relief in sight for the strained U.S. military -- though not any time real soon. Late last week Pentagon leaders played up the possibility of shortening tours of duty and reducing overall force levels in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the numbers told a less rosy story, with less than a ten percent reduction ("within months") of the roughly 160,000 soldiers now serving in the two war zones -- and with plans actually to add tens of thousands of combat soldiers to the mix in Iraq (hardly a vote of confidence that the bad guys are on the outs.)
According to the Times today, projections by the top brass are a bit brighter. Though Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the top commander in Iraq, declined to describe the size of any possible troop reductions, other senior military officials said American force levels in Iraq could drop to around 105,000, or about 13 brigades, from the 142,000 now, just over 17 brigades. But many of them still won't be home for Christmas; military officials, reports Schmitt, see those reduced numbers as a possibility "by early next year."