President Bush, with his Republican Party facing increasing political pressure during a critical mid-term election year, wants Iraqis to control more territory by the end of this year.
That's his first specific milestone for this war, but it's both a welcome short step and a troubling tall order. It's not the timetable for American troop withdrawal that Bush's political opponents and many Americans want, and that radical clerics and insurgents in Iraq demand. The president still rightly hinges that draw-down of forces to the ability of Iraqis to take over the job; rightly, because a too-abrupt withdrawal will trigger chaos and civil war on a broader and more violent scale.
Events on the ground now redefine America's role; the sectarian strife insurgents triggered eclipses the insurgency itself, shifting the bulk of the American military role from active counter-insurgency to a background presence that keeps all-out civil war from consuming the nation. While the military struggles to find order, America's diplomats struggle to make Iraqis build a unity government -- a task that means ensuring more power for minority Sunnis. That risks alienating powerful Shiite groups and allowing the Shiite state of Iran to portray itself and act as a Shiite defender.
Despite slow progress, Iraqi forces now control 20,000 more square miles than they did Jan. 1. In setting a goal of Iraqi control of at least 55,000 more square miles by year's end, Bush's stance allows U.S. forces to focus more on Iraqi training. Better trained troops with fewer links to sectarian militias are needed -- and a step toward Shiite-Sunni detente required before Iraq gains inclusive democracy and America can leave.