Is Zarqawi's death a turning point in the Iraq War? 

Don't Panic ... Your War Questions Answered

The death of terrorist and mass-murderer Abu Musab Zarqawi once again has the White House and its surrogates in Congress and the news media proffering the notion of a so-called turning point.

Said President Bush on June 8: "Zarqawi's death is a severe blow to al-Qaeda. It's a victory in the global war on terror, and it is an opportunity for Iraq's new government to turn the tide of this struggle."

What's striking about that statement to me isn't that it's incorrect, but rather that it's as close to an admission as Bush is capable of making that the war has, so far, not gone well. If Bush believes that Zarqawi's death is indeed an "opportunity" to "turn the tide," he is admitting that the tide in Iraq is, for the moment at least, with our enemies.

As recently as two weeks ago, Bush and his political allies weren't talking about turning tides at all. They instead were telling the public that the tide was on our side, but that U.S. public perception of the war was being tainted by biased and/or incomplete media coverage that focused on the negative.

Said President Bush on March 20: "Footage of children playing, or shops opening, and people resuming their normal lives will never be as dramatic as the footage of an IED [improvised explosive device] explosion, or the destruction of a mosque, or soldiers and civilians being killed or injured."

If, indeed, Zarqawi's death is a turning a point in "this struggle," then from what is "this struggle" turning?

Let's hope it's turning from the recent surge in attacks against U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians. The Pentagon's most recent quarterly update to Congress reported that between February 11 and May 12 of this year, there were more than 600 insurgent attacks in Iraq each week, the highest recorded level since the United States started counting.

Let's hope it's turning from "Talibanization," the phrase used by the London Sunday Telegraph in a June 4 article to describe the arbitrary violence that ordinary Iraqis are now suffering at the hands of religious zealots. The article describes how, in addition to bans on booze and movies, Iraq's emboldened theocratic street thugs are enforcing bizarre rules like bans on mayonnaise, goatees and falafel. Two falafel vendors who laughed at the warning to stop their sales were shot dead at their falafel stands.

Let's hope it's turning from what U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad described in a May 6 memo addressed to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as a "worsening" state with "kidnapping by criminal gangs and insurgents a particular problem." The confidential memo, parts of which were leaked to the Washington Post, also says that "armed militia, loyal to various non-governmental entities, have limited-to-extensive control of parts of Baghdad and some cities in Iraq."

In his June 6 confidential memo to Rice, also leaked to the Washington Post (note to Khalilzad: Why not just CC the Post next time?), Khalilzad details how the deteriorating security situation, failed municipal infrastructure and corruption are putting a strain on his embassy's Iraqi staff.

Baghdad has electricity for about four hours each day, Khalilzad says. "Areas near hospitals, political party headquarters, and the green zone have the best supply," he writes. "One staff member reported that a friend lives in a building that houses a new minister; within 24 hours of his appointment, her building had city power 24 hours a day."

Female members of the staff are increasingly harassed on the street by goons who insist that they wear veils, quit talking on cell phones and not drive. Khalilzad also tells Rice that male members of his staff have come under attack for wearing shorts in public or allowing their children to wear shorts in public. Incidentally, daytime temperatures in Baghdad this time of year hover at 110 degrees.

So, is Zarqawi's death a turning point? If, in the next weeks, violence slows, electricity comes back on and kids can wear shorts without their dads fearing assassination, then we'll be able to call it a turning point. If not, we'll know that -- like Saddam Hussein's capture, the battle of Fallujah and Iraq's two elections -- Zarqawi's death was less turning point than talking point.

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