The stakes couldn't be higher. U.S. commanders report that, whatever the case before the war, Iraq has now become the central front of al Qaeda operations, drawing jihadists from all over the world. It is also a central front in Iran's offensive to become the dominant player in the region. American generals say they have been "shocked" to discover the level of Iranian influence in Iraq. The Iranians are supporting not only the Mahdi Army, Badr Brigades, and other Shiite militias, but also, the generals believe, al Qaeda--the very group killing Shiites en masse.
Petraeus feels that he is making slow, steady progress against the myriad enemies that Coalition forces confront, but he is keenly aware that results may not come fast enough to please antiwar politicians back home who are eager to pull all U.S. troops out of Iraq, and damn the consequences. "The Washington clock is ticking faster than the Baghdad clock," Petraeus often says. His goal is to speed up the Baghdad clock by pressing for more reconciliation between Sunnis and Shiites, and to slow down the Washington clock by showing gains on the ground that can reverse public pressure to pull U.S. troops out prematurely. The former is hard to do because of the mutual suspicions that grip this country. The latter is equally hard, because a few high-profile insurgent atrocities can obscure the progress being made by Coalition forces in stopping ethnic cleansing in Baghdad, which Petraeus views as his most important immediate goal.
Petraeus's ultimate objective, he told me over lunch at his embassy office, is to "achieve an outcome sustainable by the Iraqis." Upon his assessment of Iraqi capabilities will rest his recommendation for when, how far, and how fast to draw down U.S. forces. Under consideration are various plans. The lower the number of American troops, the easier it is to sustain, politically and materially--but the greater the risk that the security situation will once again slide out of control as it did in 2006.