Progress. This is the new watchword for determining whether U.S. military forces should remain bogged down in Iraq.

Because the Bush administration has managed to shift the debate from how quickly to bring the troops home to “benchmarks” as the measure of “progress,” it is important to scrutinize just what “progress” really means.

According to reports in The New York Times, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said about Iraq, “We probably all underestimated the depth of the mistrust and how difficult it would be for these guys to come together on legislation, which, let’s face it, is not some kind of secondary issue.” Developments in Iraq have so far proved disappointing, he said.

Time out. Let’s understand what Gates is really saying. He implies that we haven’t been waiting for more than four years and almost 4,000 U.S. troop deaths for something positive to come out of it. He is trying to distort that abysmal history of failure by imposing a new, artificial, “come September” timeline, with some White House insiders hinting at a November wait date.

Gates would also like us to forget that “our underestimation” of the post-invasion scenario presented by the White House was part of the administration’s carefully crafted selling of the war.

Despite the geopolitical mess and the ongoing violence, said Secretary Gates, “my hope is that it can all be patched back together.”

Gates acknowledged Iraq’s political quagmire, fueled by sectarianism. Unable to advance the Bush agenda or Iraqi national unity, the government headed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is losing support.

According to news reports, 17 cabinet ministers are boycotting the government, claiming al-Maliki refuses to handle the problem of Shiite militias involved in anti-Sunni activities.

A majority of Iraq’s Parliament has signed a formal parliamentary petition calling for the phased withdrawal of U.S. troops. And the Parliament has refused to pass the oil privatization law pushed by the Bush administration as a key “benchmark” of progress.

It was recently revealed that U.S. commanders have paid out millions of dollars to armed Iraqi groups to enlist them as “security contractors” ostensibly to fight al-Qaeda. But as the Washington Post has reported, the real goal is to line them up against Shiite groups.

The mobilization of such “security contractors” has simply meant that more armed groups outside the Iraqi state structure have lined up to feed at the U.S. taxpayer-funded trough for self-serving reasons.

But achievement of this security “benchmark” is aimed at securing another Bush administration aim that has less to do with Iraq’s internal security and more to do with checking Iran’s regional power.

Here is where the plan is doomed to failure. Any group that seeks political legitimacy and power in Iraq will fail if they are perceived as being a tool of Bush’s Middle East foreign policy aims.

In addition, what amounts to bribing armed groups to get them to accept U.S. aims won’t relieve sectarian strife; it merely moves it around.

Bush’s tactics weaken the constitutional authority of the Iraqi state and put more armed groups into competition for cash and power. It encourages a gangster society bent on fragmentation.

The occupation’s biggest failures

Iraqi deaths due to the invasion, whether directly from U.S. forces or from sectarian violence erupting as a result of the invasion, far exceed the horrors imposed by Saddam Hussein. Credible estimates put the total Iraqi deaths since the beginning of the war at nearly 1 million. Between 1 million and 2 million Iraqis have been displaced internally and as many as 2.2 million have fled the country.

Iraqis currently enjoy only four hours or so a day of electricity. Aziz al-Shimari, Baghdad’s Electricity Ministry spokesperson, said power generation across the country totals only half of the demand. In the first couple of days in August, there had already been four nationwide blackouts. Al-Shimari complained that the current problems are worse than even in the summer of 2003.

Sporadic electrical power has led to faulty sewage systems and an increased public health menace that has not been adequately addressed in large parts of Baghdad and in many outlying provinces. Sewage has also contaminated crops, leading to illnesses and food shortages.

These problems are compounded by a lack of potable water. According to a recent IRIN news report, a study by the UK-based charity Oxfam and the NGO Coordination Committee in Iraq shows that around 8 million Iraqis, approximately one-third of the population, are in urgent need of water and sanitation.

The severity of the water shortage is intensified for the more than 1 million internally displaced persons who face both water shortages and armed groups who hoard water in order to extort high prices from the refugees, IRIN reports.

Additionally, cooking oil and gasoline have now become precious commodities that few Iraqis can get, with gasoline prices as high as $5 per gallon in the city of Karbala (half of the daily wage of a taxi driver there).

Other problems are having an untold long-term impact as well. Unemployment affects about half the labor force. UNICEF reports that loss of parents, ongoing violence and privation have caused 60-70 percent of Iraqi children to suffer from psychological problems. Economic collapse, according to the Education for Peace in Iraq Center, has left 4 million Iraqis unable to buy enough food, and 28 percent of the country’s children are malnourished.

Lack of security remains a major issue. Car bombings, murders, gang violence, religious intolerance and assassinations are routine. Conservative estimates say that more than 13,500 Iraqi civilians and over 1,400 Iraqi military personnel have been killed in the violence since the beginning of this year.

Close to 700 U.S. troops have been killed and more than 3,800 have been wounded (not including medically evacuated for other injuries or diseases) since the beginning of the year, when the Bush administration announced its escalation of the war.

The solution: Iraq and sovereignty

So how can it be resolved? Sen. Barack Obama was correct when, at the AFL-CIO presidential debate, he said, “We’ve got no good options. We’ve got bad options and worse options.” Once we realize this, drawing down the occupation forces and redefining the mission away from combat to withdrawal operations is the first step.

Setting in motion steps to complete withdrawal of all military forces and related civilian contractors as quickly as possible, the United States should aid as much as possible in a shift to alternative means of security with UN assistance, and focus on diplomatic initiatives to help end interference in Iraq’s internal affairs by Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Syria and other regional powers, as well as by the U.S.

The Bush administration has tried to give an impression that it seeks good-faith diplomacy, but it imposes preconditions on talks with countries like Syria and Iran, and otherwise will scuttle serious talks and never accept responsibility for these failures.

Often ridiculed as a utopian or fantastic scenario, the notion that Iraqis alone can save Iraq from further chaos is worth reconsidering. Iraqis have long held strong nationalist and secular views of themselves, and there are signs that such views are growing, despite outside interference and internal manipulation.

As late as April 2006, only slightly more than one in four Iraqis identified themselves as Iraqis “above all else.” By March 2007, however, a survey by the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research and Independent Institute for Administration and Civil Society Studies indicates that more than half of Iraqis subordinate their identification as “Arab,” “Kurd,” “Muslim,” “Christian” and the like to an Iraqi identity. This is accompanied by widely held feelings of national pride.

According to Eastern Michigan University professor Mansoor Moaddel, who collaborated in the study, “The rise of national identity is indicative of the fact that Iraqis as a whole have little interests in sectarian Iraq and prefer national integration.”

The re-emergence of an Iraqi national identity is key to Iraq’s self-reconstruction, reconciliation and revival. This view is shared by the Iraqi Communist Party, which, in its recent Baghdad congress argued eloquently for a national democratic revolution in Iraq.

In the congress’ main political report, the ICP affirmed its opposition to the invasion and occupation, and said the struggle to end the foreign military presence has become “closely interconnected” with the struggle for a unified, federal, democratic Iraq, and is “also intertwined with confronting the external factor in the violence,” referring to outside forces “whose agendas and objectives in Iraq have nothing to do with Iraq and the interests of its people.”

The party emphasized working closely with the broadest patriotic forces who alone can achieve national reconciliation, restore security and stability, launch the process of reconstruction, regain national sovereignty and end the presence of foreign forces.

The Communists are not alone in expressing these sentiments. Free of outside interference, including from the U.S., and with adequate resources for reconstruction, these national feelings could become a basis for overcoming the sectarian violence.

Opening multilateral regional talks without preconditions combined with a swift and systematic U.S. troop redeployment, formation of a UN-mandated alternative multinational security force, no-strings-attached economic assistance for Iraq, and the return of real national sovereignty are about the only positive steps the U.S. can take at this point to both extricate itself from Iraq and avoid the continuing chaos predicted for the post-occupation regime.

Joel Wendland ( is managing editor of Political Affairs.