On March 17, 2003, George W. Bush stood before the cameras at the White House and said that the United States would invade Iraq if Saddam Hussein didn't leave within 48 hours.
Given what we know about prewar planning -- or, more accurately, the lack thereof -- the president probably wasn't thinking three years out that night. But even if he were, it's unlikely that he envisioned that we'd be where we are now. His secretary of defense was talking about a war that would last weeks rather than months. His vice president was talking about U.S. troops being greeted as liberators. Today's newspapers tell a different story. "Three Years Later: Tears, Prayers, Frustration," says one. Says another: "Iraqis and U.S. Launch Huge Assault on Insurgents."
And so it goes. Three years after the war began -- two years and 10 months after the president declared that "major combat operations" were over -- 133,000 U.S. troops are still serving in Iraq. Gen. John Abizaid, the U.S. commander for the Middle East, told reporters Thursday that the United States is on track to bring its troops home, but his words were so vague that they could have meant just about anything. "The general trend, given a legitimate government emerging, will be, Iraqis do more, we do less and eventually more reductions come about," Abizaid said. "The downward trend is a trend that -- based on what I see now -- is one that will continue." In language that was more Alan Greenspan than Norman Schwarzkopf, Abizaid laid on the qualifiers: Iraq needs to get through "a period of sensitivity" when "sectarian tensions are high," and a national unity government must be formed in the "relative near term."
It's hard to see much progress on either front. Three months after national elections, leaders from the various parties haven't been able to reach agreement on a president, a prime minister or cabinet members; the first meeting of the new Iraqi Parliament adjourned indefinitely after a little more than a half-hour Thursday because the body doesn't have a speaker to lead it yet. In the hours before Parliament met Thursday, authorities discovered 25 more bodies discarded around Baghdad; most seemed to be victims in another wave of sectarian violence. In Baghdad today, at least seven more people have been killed in scattered violence. A report on seven days in Iraq reads like the police blotter from hell.
Running out of more palatable solutions, the Bush administration says it's going to talk now with the same Iranian leaders it has spent weeks threatening in the hopes of finding some way to stem sectarian violence in Iraq. Maybe it makes sense, but the politics of the region make the prospect of productive talks unlikely. The Iranians see the U.S. approach as an admission of failure, something for them to lord over the Americans. "I think Iraq is a good testing ground for America to take a harder look at the way it acts," Iran's chief nuclear negotiator said today. "If there's a determination in America to take that hard look, then we're prepared to help." Sunnis in Iraq see the talks as a betrayal, an invitation for Iran to engage in "an obvious unjustified interference in Iraq's affairs."
The president is still talking about his strategy for victory in Iraq, but there seems to be little hope that the sixth anniversary of the war will be any happier than the third. As Reuters puts it today, forecasts for Iraq three years out now range from "gloomy to apocalyptic."