Dan Rather recently traveled to Iraq to interview General Raymond T. Odierno, the commander of U.S. forces in the region. The complete report will air tonight at 8pm Eastern on HDNet.
On a rainy night in Baghdad, sleep won't come. Only the ghosts. The ghosts of nights and days past. The interview with Saddam. The invasion, with its introductory mantra of "Shock and Awe" and the follow-on one of "Speed Kills-and Conquers ." The screams of the wounded and moans of the dying. The tired, drawn faces of frightened civilians. The determined, focused-on-mission faces of heroic U.S. soldiers and Marines; "...theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do or die."
And the mud. Ah, the mud. The soil around Baghdad is different from that south in nearby Kuwait.
In Kuwait, after one of its infrequent rains, the loose sand quickly returns to sand. In much of Iraq, the coarser sand turns to mud. An especially mucky, sticky mud. It sticks to everything and everybody, and it stays.
A meat-red dawn finally comes, and your correspondent steps out into the mud. The thought comes that the mud is an apt metaphor for the U.S. in Iraq -- yesterday, today and tomorrow. We're stuck in it. Have been, are and will be for the foreseeable future, in spite of the official 2011 deadline for complete withdrawal.
Newsweek magazine proclaimed, on a recent cover about Iraq, "Victory at Last". Oh, if it were only true. But it isn't. Just this week's violence shows how unsettled it is. Even so, things are better for America and for Iraq now. Much better. And there are promising signs of even more improvement.
The famous "surge" snatched some hope from the jaws of defeat. But "victory"? No, not yet anyway. It is far too early for any dancing in the end zone.
The commanding U.S. General, Ray Odierno, emphasizes this in an interview. In his blunt, direct, soft-spoken way he says it will be three, five, maybe ten years before we know whether it was win, lose or draw in Iraq.
He adds that right now is an especially challenging and dangerous time for American and Iraqi hopes for the future. He likes much of what he says he is seeing and feeling: stability and security improving, a national election just completed (albeit with a foggy outcome and continuing controversy), and more confidence among the Iraqi people that this whole process may, just may, wok out after all.
But he has no illusions, and recommends that no one else have any, either. The situation remains volatile and unpredictable. He's an optimist about it, but his optimism is guarded. "Cautious optimism" is not just an empty phrase with him; he lives it.
He and every other military and civilian authority your reporter met on this trip worries about Kirkuk, in Iraq's north. Tinderbox is the word heard most often to describe it. Kirkuk is where conflicting, clashing Sunni, Shiite and Kurd interests, suspicions and hatreds come together most vividly. A consensus seems to be that so goes Kirkuk, so the nation may go.
With the U.S. already beginning to drawdown troop levels and equipment, nervousness about Kirkuk and other flashpoints is heightened. Gen. Odierno's orders are to have the current 97,000 U.S. troop level down to 50,000 by the end of August. Various sources say he asked President Obama for an additional seven to nine thousand more specifically to keep the peace in Kirkuk. He didn't get them. Odierno won't talk that, other than to say he can do, will do whatever is required with what he has.
After talking with Odierno, other U.S. officials and a wide variety of sources of various nationalities on this trip, what comes clear is this: The end of the American era in Iraq has begun. But it's only a beginning. The way ahead figures to be long, messy and filled with potential peril.
Once the era has ended, what is to be America's residual role? If and when the U.S. and allied military are out, all out, can Iraqis keep Iran at bay? Can the country hold its own against Iran's ambitions to heavily influence if not outright control Iraq?
These questions vex Washington, capitals throughout the Middle East, and the Iraqis themselves. The U.S is withdrawing, however slowly and warily, but deep down Iraqis are torn about it. Under the table, many in Iraq have reservations about the withdrawal. The Iraqi Shia', who came out on top as winners, don't want us to leave because they fear civil war. The Sunnis, who lost control, don't want us out because they fear the Shia' and Iran. The Kurds, caught in between, fear both the Shiites, the Sunnis -- and Iran.
They all know that the withdrawal that has begun is irreversible. But in their heart of hearts they worry about it.
Such is the irony of what is happening in Iraq now. A reminder that history is filled with irony. In this case, the ghosts and the metaphor of Mesopotamian mud make it all the more poignant.