Sometimes, if you want to get reality straight, it pays to read pieces in our press with care and to the end. Take a recent New York Times piece by Richard A. Oppel Jr., headlined: Iraqi Official Reports Capture of Top Insurgent Leader Linked to Shrine Bombing.” It’s pretty typical of reporting on this story. Forget for a second that the capture of second-in-commands and “top lieutenants” of al-Qaeda in Iraq have been staples of Bush administration announcements for the last year or more — or that you could practically fill Abu Ghraib (recently turned over to the Iraqis empty) with these “top” figures. Though this was billed as a joint U.S./Iraqi operation, it’s been heavily flogged as an Iraqi success story. Hence the Iraqi national security adviser, Mowaffak al-Rubaie, proudly made the announcement that “the second-ranking leader” of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, Hamid Juma Faris Jouri al-Saeedi, was in custody.

Read a little farther into the piece though and you get this telling bit of journalistic anonymity: “However, a United States military official was more cautious in describing Mr. Saeedi’s place in the organization’s pecking order… ‘I’m not sure we are ready to put a number on him,’ said the American official, who agreed to speak only without being named because Iraqi officials had been designated to announce the capture. ‘It’s a very decentralized operation.'”

Is this the equivalent of designated driver, Iraqi-style? You all go to the bar and boisterously down a few — except for that little guy in the corner, drinking coffee, who’s there to drive you home. Is this what they call “sovereignty” in Iraq?

If you read on to the very end, you’ll find this gem: “In Baghdad, Iraqi and American officials worked to overcome disagreements over the transfer of direct operational control of the Iraqi armed forces to the Iraqi Defense Ministry. At issue is the delineation of responsibilities between Iraqi and American forces, said an American official, who called the disputes minor.”

Ah, now I get it. The “Iraqi Army” may soon be turned over to the Iraqis — as today’s Times put it, this is a “plan to take over formal operational command of the Iraqi Army from the United States.”

Back in 2003, Americans in the occupation used to wield a wonderful term for all this. They would speak of putting an “Iraqi face” on things — in Iraq. Now, they don’t say it, they just do it. Whatever “formal” plan may be worked out, as Michael Schwartz, a smart sociologist I know, wrote recently: “There is no Iraqi army… The government’s military consists of Iraqi units integrated into the U.S.-commanded occupation army.”

Increasingly the question is: Is there an Iraq?