THE THREE-WEEK confrontation in the Iraqi city of Najaf grabbed all the headlines before its peaceful semi-resolution last week; that enabled the gathering debacle in Fallujah to go largely unnoticed. But there's just as much trouble brewing in the Sunni areas of Iraq as in the Shiite ones, if not more. Out-and-out fighting has so far been averted, but that may be success of a very limited sort.
Last spring, the Marines were prepared to strike at insurgents in Fallujah, much as they were last month in Najaf. But dramatic, creative deal-making averted bloodshed both times. Yet now reports coming out of Fallujah suggest that it has become a hotbed, a headquarters, for insurgent activity. The police chief is kidnapped and slain. The governor's sons are kidnapped; he is humiliated and resigns. The so-called Fallujah Brigade, which was to establish order at the behest of the United States, has withered away.
The Marines could have flattened Fallujah, which would have outraged the Islamic world and stoked violent extremism. Or they could, as they did, leave it to its own devices, which may not have stoked violent extremism but has allowed it to flourish there. In terms of outcomes, the only real difference may be that the flatten-the-city scenario would have killed more American troops. Looking ahead, though, it's difficult to see anything but grief coming out of there.
And now Najaf looks like more of the same.
The insurgents there were persuaded to leave the holy shrine; the Iraqi defense forces, who had the Marines behind them, didn't have to show what they were made of. Neither side was tested; maybe Iraq isn't ready for tests yet.
The Najaf insurgents, loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr, won't be going away. His promise to engage in peaceful politics is unlikely to hold. The next showdown can't be far away.
While a bloodbath there would have been disastrous, the question now is whether Iraq's interim government and its American backers can foment something positive out of the stand-down.
The signs are disheartening. A video released yesterday apparently shows 12 Nepalese being killed by kidnappers - even though Nepal has expressly told its citizens not to go to Iraq. Other hostage-takers had seized two French journalists, and were demanding that France rescind its ban on headscarves - in France. That brought wide condemnation from throughout the Muslim world, at least - but it may only be a matter of time before the fury let loose in Iraq comes home to roost on American shores.