'A SIGH of relief!"
So one resident of Haifa Street, in the heart of Baghdad's badlands, reacted to the new plan to secure the Iraqi capital with the help of thousands of additional American troops.
"Maybe the Americans aren't running away after all," said the resident, a Sunni Arab, over the phone moments after President Bush unveiled his new plan. "The message seems to be that the United States will remain committed as long as Bush is in the White House."
Some 70 percent of Baghdad's violence is concentrated in five neighborhoods, where both Shiites and Sunnis have been the targets of rival death squads for months. Other Baghdadis say the population of those areas will greet the American troops with sweets and flowers.
The fear that the United States, bedeviled by internecine feuds, might cut and run has been at the root of the violence since Iraq's liberation in 2003.
Jihadists have fought not because they hope to win on the battlefield, but to strengthen the antiwar lobbies in the United States and Britain. Some in the new political elite have become fence sitters because they regard the United States as a fickle power that could suddenly change course. Others have created or expanded militias, in case the United States abandons Iraq before it can defend itself against internal foes and predatory neighbors.
The new Bush plan has raised Iraqi morale to levels not known for a year. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who had been dropping hints he might resign because of sheer fatigue, now says he is committed to restoring Baghdad's sobriquet of Dar al-Salaam (The Abode of Peace) by clearing it of al Qaeda and Saddamite terrorists, militias and death squads.
"The plan that President Bush has announced is based on our plan," says Ali al-Dabbagh, al-Maliki's spokesman. "We presented it to him during the summit in Amman last month, and he promised to study it. The result is a joint Iraqi-American plan to defeat the terrorists."
As if to underline that claim, the Iraqi army, backed by a U.S. helicopter gunship, launched a major operation in Baghdad two days before Bush's announcement of the new plan. Over 50 jihadists were killed, and an unknown number captured.
The operation signaled that the Iraqi army, backed by American firepower, was on the offensive. Which brings us to one of the paradoxes of Iraq during the last two years: There has been a great deal of killing, but little fighting. The terrorists, who mainly operate in less than 5 percent of Iraqi territory, have been allowed to strike whenever they wish without being chased by the Iraqi army or the multinational force. The multinational force has been mostly in "self-defense" mode. In 2006, the U.S. forces initiated only 11 operations against the jihadists; the British and the Danes, another three.
The new plan will see more fighting - and so force the jihadists to spend more resources on protecting themselves, and fewer on attacking soft civilian targets.
Iraqis that I've talked to are especially pleased that Bush did not take up the Iraq Study Group's idea of involving Iran in the future of Iraq. The idea of a secret U.S. plan to hand over Iraq to the Iranians (in the context of a grand bargain with the mullahs) has been one of the themes of Sunni jihadist propaganda. The claim has been echoed by some of Washington's allies, including Jordan's King Abdullah II.
Instead, Bush promised to "seek and destroy" networks of support for terrorists, set up by Iran and Syria. That is a sign he understands the broader regional aspects of this struggle. It is impossible to eradicate terrorism in Iraq without eliminating sources of support that lie beyond Iraqi frontiers.
Iraqis also welcome Bush's reasserted commitment to Iraq's integrity and see it as a rejection of ideas to carve the country into three mini-states.
Despite their almost unanimous welcome of the new plan, however, some Iraqis do express a number of concerns.
The first is that Bush might not achieve sufficient unity, both within his own administration and in the broader American political arena, to drive home the message that the jihadists will be hunted down and destroyed.
To address that concern, the president must become "explainer-in-chief," briefing the American people on what is at stake, and showing that the victory that the United States has won in Iraq, by destroying one of the most vicious anti-American regimes on earth, is worth fighting to preserve.
The second concern is that, as on several occasions, the hunt-and-destroy strategy against jihadists may be aborted by political considerations. Iraqis remember how operations in Fallujah, Najaf, Samarrah and Sadr City were called off after U.S. proconsul Paul Bremer, and the Iraqi prime ministers who succeeded him, intervened in response to political pressure.
The third concern is that the so-called room-service mentality of a portion of the Iraqi leadership may come into effect - will they sit back and let the Americans do the dirty work? This would be especially dangerous if the United States is dragged into the war of the sectarians on one side or another. It is important that the United States be, and is perceived to be, a friend and protector of all Iraqis, regardless of sect.
Some of the units used in the pacification of Baghdad are Kurdish; pan-Arabists may exploit that fact to foment chauvinism. It is, therefore, important to also deploy mainly Arab Sunni units both in Baghdad and in al-Anbar, the only one of Iraq's 18 provinces where the central government's presence is thin on the ground.
A fourth concern is that the new plan might be used as an excuse to freeze the democratic process. Local elections, postponed on spurious grounds, must be held as soon as possible to revive local administrations and speed the disbanding of various unofficial bodies, often backed by militias.
Finally, there is concern that plans to hand over control of all provinces to the Iraqi government may be put on hold. Today, Iraqis have full control of five provinces, and were slated to assume control of two more by the end of 2006. The hand-over plan must be completed before the next general election in 2009. This would release U.S. and allied troops of such routine duties as patrolling and asset and personnel protection.
That, in turn, would allow the bulk of the GIs and allied forces to start withdrawal by the end of this year, leaving behind training missions and special units to help destroy the terrorists.
Amir Taheri is an Iranian-born journalist and author based in Europe.