Of the many problems in Iraq, one of the most frustrating has been the Bush administration's belief that democracy is the prerequisite to liberalism. It is not. Security, not democracy, is the sine qua non of a liberal society. Without it, elections are useless, or worse. While the administration labored to deliver Iraqi democracy, it seemed to believe that security would take care of itself once the purple thumbs were counted.

The Baghdad Security Plan (commonly known as the "surge") is the administration's first serious attempt to grapple with security in Iraq. The results so far are not discouraging.

The Baghdad Security Plan went into effect Feb. 14, as Gen. David Petraeus assumed command over coalition forces in Iraq. The idea was to push five additional U.S. brigades and nine Iraqi battalions into neighborhoods in and around Baghdad, establishing secure points and radiating security outward.

Some results were seen almost immediately. In the first two weeks of the plan, bomb attacks decreased 20 percent and insurgents were being rolled up by the dozen. The number of bodies of apparently murdered people in Baghdad dropped from 1,222 in December to 954 in January and 494 in February. The Iraqi government stepped up its training of troops to the point at which it was minting 7,500 new soldiers every five weeks, most of whom were being used to spell Iraq army units already in Baghdad.

The news was not all good. Al-Qaeda forces pushed back, staging an attack that nearly killed Iraqi Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi. During the first week of March, al-Qaeda kidnapped and killed 14 Iraqi police officers.

As conditions improved in Baghdad, insurgents moved their fight to the outer provinces. On March 1, they mounted a major attack in Amiriyah, a village south of Fallujah, with a force of several hundred. Iraqi regulars there managed to hold them off until U.S. air and ground support arrived. On March 6, coordinated car bombs in the Babil province city of Hillah killed more than 115 and wounded about 200 Shiite pilgrims. The same day, 300 al-Qaeda fighters stormed a prison in Mosul, freeing 140 suspected terrorists held there. Diyala province, in particular, has become a refuge for insurgents; Petraeus has deployed an additional 700 U.S. troops there to prevent al-Qaeda from taking root.

But in the aggregate, signs are encouraging. On March 4, U.S. and Iraqi forces began cleaning out Sadr City, the Baghdad stronghold of Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army. Sadr has gone into hiding in Iran, and the action was mostly peaceful. Originally, the Baghdad Security Plan had called for 35 to 40 joint security stations, mini-HQs in Baghdad neighborhoods to be manned by coalition and Iraqi troops. After the first 20 were established, the results were so good that Petraeus increased the ultimate goal to 70 such stations.

The impact is striking: According to Iraqi military spokesman Brig. Gen. Qassim Atta al-Mussawi, in the first month of the Baghdad Security Plan, while the number of car-bomb incidents was at an all-time high, murders were down 75 percent, the number of terrorists killed was up 80 percent, and the number of terrorists arrested was up 1,000 percent. (U.S. military deaths were down 20 percent.)

It is good news, of a sort, that when al-Qaeda staged a symbolic attack on the four-year anniversary of Operation Iraqi Freedom, it did so in Kirkuk, suggesting that Baghdad may be moving out of its reach.

The Baghdad Security Plan is a "rolling" surge, meaning that the deployment of forces comes gradually. So far, only two of the five additional U.S. brigades have been put in play. When the insurgents launch their counterattacks or seek safer havens, Petraeus has three more brigades to bring to bear, continuously increasing the pressure on the enemy.

Caveats abound. The good results so far are only that. It is too soon to draw any serious conclusions about the Baghdad Security Plan or to predict even the short-term future in Iraq. While the snapshot we have now portrays improving conditions, it is quite possible that cultural-religious crosscurrents or other structural realities will make the goal of Iraqi liberal democracy impossible. For now we must watch, wait and hope.

But the Baghdad Security Plan does provide clarity on one point: former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld was a principal objectors to the large-scale use of troops from the beginning of the Iraq conflict. He insisted on a small invasion force and was adamant that troop levels during the reconstruction phase be kept to a "small footprint" ideal, even as the security situation deteriorated and threatened to doom the mission. Rumsfeld was opposed to any surge in troop levels.

Meanwhile, as columnist Andrew Cockburn recently revealed, back at the Pentagon this petty tyrant was busy sending around "snowflakes" - informal personal notes - dictating a host of micromanagerial issues, including the proper size of the lemon wedge to accompany his iced tea.

One Last Thing |

For Alexander Cockburn's column "No, He Wasn't a Good Manager," go to http://go.philly.com/coburnEndText

Contact Jonathan V. Last at jlast@phillynews.com.