This week Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made his first visit to Iraq since the last combat troops left that country eight months ago. His time there — all of six hours — was well-documented by the press, and his wizened face was later splashed about the Internet and television spouting statements like: “We still retain significant investment and significant influence. But now it’s on the basis of a partnership and not on the basis of ownership.”

And later, after he had hopped back on his C-17 aircraft to get the heck out of there (presumably, not the same C-17 that had been hit earlier by insurgent rocket fire while parked at Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan), he added: “Only eight months out, and it seems to me that they’ve gripped the opportunity for now that we hoped they would grip.”

That must have been easy to say, especially if he were already in the air, the country for which nearly 4,500 Americans and an untold number of Iraqis have died, becoming smaller and smaller beneath him. I am guessing the word “opportunity” here is fungible. What we do know is this: in the last month, some 409 Iraqis were killed during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. The deaths occurred during several waves of coordinated attacks, most recently on August 16, when an estimated 70 were killed and more than 200 wounded in more than a dozen towns and cities and Baghdad neighborhoods.

This is horrific on its own, but to add insult to injury, the Islamic Army of Iraq (IAI), a branch of al Qaeda that has been operating in Iraq since the occupation, has taken responsibility as part of a new offensive to take back once-held territory, forebodingly called “Taking Down Walls”. It’s obvious that these Sunni militants are trying to undermine the Shia-led state — hence the disproportionate attacks on army and police checkpoints, government officials and other security apparatus. But the fighters, armed with guns, suicide attackers, and “sticky bombs” easily attached to the under-carriage of vehicles, are targeting these interests in mostly Sunni areas, which critics say have been left behind — and quite vulnerable — by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government. A quick check found that the majority of 20 locations targeted in the August 16 attacks, for example, were Sunni Arab or Sunni Kurdish strongholds.

What’s more, al Qaeda appears keen on sending a message to those Sunnis who worked with Americans and have since been tapped to defend their communities through the national security forces and government.

For example, in Masud, north of Baghdad, militants with silencers on their weapons surprised and killed at least six soldiers at a checkpoint; in al-Garma near Fallujah, four policeman were killed at a similar checkpoint; three roadside bombs exploded in Tuz Khurmatu near the home of the district chief, killing his wife and leaving him and his three sons wounded. On Sunday, a Sunni cleric in western Baghdad who has worked with al Maliki’s government and taken a stance against Sunni extremists, was critically wounded in a bomb attack on his convoy.

In July, 15 Mukhtars, or elected neighborhood officials, resigned in protest in the Sunni City of Baquba because of what they said was the government’s inability to protect them from al Qaeda threats. They quit, Abdullah al Hiali, head of the City Council of Baquba, told the New York Times, “to save their family members’ lives because of living under threats from al Qaeda and militants.” There are typically 100 Mukhtars in Baquba — some 50 have resigned under similar circumstances since January, according to reports. Baquba, long the backdrop of Sunni insurgent activity, was one of the targets in last Thursday’s deadly attacks.

Funny how Dempsey mentioned none of this, at least to the press, on Tuesday. Instead, he gushed to reporters that Iraq could (still) become a democratic model for the Middle East. He met with al-Maliki, a Shia strong man with authoritarian tendencies who helped purge Sunnis during and after the war and now appears to be letting them suffer. He forcefully put down a developing front in the “Arab Spring” in Sunni areas in February 2011, when his security forces opened fire on “Day of Rage” protesters, who marched by the thousands demanding better government services. “We want a good life like human beings, not like animals,” Baghdad protester Khalil Ibrahim told the Associated Press at the time. The protests soon ceased across the country.

Basic services still elude most Iraqi citizens, Sunni or otherwise. Oil revenues are up, but they’ve yet to translate into anything substantial for the people, according to a sobering August report by The Washington Post. Indeed, it seems everything the U.S was supposed to accomplish in its carefully orchestrated 2003 invasion has been turned on its head. Al Qaeda is back, terrorizing the population. Meanwhile, al-Maliki’s government has done nothing to dispel the notion that besides the Shia majority inside Iraq, Iran has been the only beneficiary of our painful — and tremendously expensive — intervention there (“Obama can’t admit the truth–that Iran won the Iraq War,” national security writer Marcy Wheeler recently noted). Reports last week indicate that a Baghdad bank crossed the U.S last month when it was found to be helping Iran skirt economic sanctions over its nuclear program. According to The New York Times:

The little-known bank singled out by the United States, the Elaf Islamic Bank, is only part of a network of financial institutions and oil-smuggling operations that, according to current and former American and Iraqi government officials and experts on the Iraqi banking sector, has provided Iran with a crucial flow of dollars at a time when sanctions are squeezing its economy. …

Some current and former American and Iraqi officials, along with banking and oil experts, say that Iraqi government officials are turning a blind eye to the large financial flows, smuggling and other trade with Iran. In some cases, they say, government officials, including some close to Mr. Maliki, are directly profiting from the activities.

Maliki’s government has denied such involvement. Classic. We fight a war as part of an effort to improve our strategic influence in the region only to find we have … very little? The bank was “cut off” from American banking by the Obama administration, but there has been no real confrontation, for obvious reasons. Likewise there was little public comment on reports that Iraq has been helping its Syrian brethren in Assad’s regime over the border. At the same time, the Iraqi al Qaeda is allegedly sending fighters over there to aid the rebellion. What a thicket — and to think we had such a generous hand in planting the seed!

Gen. Dempsey put a brave face on American-Iraqi relations on Tuesday — acknowledging that in addition to discussing Syria and Iran, he spoke to al-Maliki about extending U.S-led training with the Iraqi army, and Iraq’s purchase of American military hardware. But no doubt he probably wished he had never laid eyes on that place again.