Violence makes Iraq milestones tough

A small hopeful sign emerged in Iraq last week. While it came amid increasing violence in the capital city of Baghdad, it is still worth noting.

The still-emerging Iraqi government on Thursday was given full control of Muthanna, in the southern portion of the country, one of Iraq’s 18 recognized provinces. Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki attended a ceremony in the provincial capital commemorating the formal handover of control of the province from British-led international troops to Iraqi troops. U.S. ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and Army Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, issued a joint statement calling the handover “a milestone.”

Muthanna has been relatively peaceful since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. It is so far the only province to be handed over entirely to Iraqi governance. Its relative calm seems the exception rather than the rule in Iraq. Even so, barring an unexpected outbreak of chaos, the handover demonstrates it is possible for a portion of Iraq to be run by Iraqis rather than occupying forces. That’s worth celebrating.

Unfortunately the handover came the same week that Sunni-Shia violence in Baghdad escalated so dramatically that James Hider of the Times of London, returning to Baghdad after several months at home, wrote that “Baghdad is now verging on total collapse.”

Since a massacre a week ago Sunday more than 160 people have been killed. Gen Casey is dropping hints that more U.S. troops, not fewer, will be required in the months ahead. The number of buses filled with Iraqis fleeing for Jordan has increased from two a day to 40 or 50 a day.

We hope that in a year or two the independence of Muthanna will be seen as a more significant trend than the violence in Baghdad. But the violence cannot be denied.