September 15, 2004

THE CONFLICT in Iraq has taken a severe, and significant, turn for the worse.

Scores of Iraqi civilians have been killed by insurgents and by American soldiers since widespread fighting erupted Sunday. Deaths in Baghdad, of which there were many yesterday, get the most attention, but attacks and counterattacks are occurring in cities across the country. The Bush administration's tattered plans for Iraq are in danger of unraveling altogether -- and not gradually.

The American military response at the moment is airstrikes -- which have the advantage of minimizing U.S. casualties but the disadvantage of maximizing the destruction of innocent people and of tolerance for the American occupation.

At home, supporters of the war are actually arguing that the show of force by the United States hinders the efforts of terrorist groups to recruit new members. People who say this are either feeble-minded or untruthful. The Pentagon once said that it faced 5,000 insurgents, and now it believes that number has grown to 20,000. The war in Iraq, in this election season, is still being portrayed as a noble effort to make America safer, but it is getting very ugly.

A sampling of bad news:

The Iraqi prime minister, Ayad Allawi, has fired Mowaffak al-Rubaie, the national security adviser and a close ally of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani; this seems like a poor moment to alienate the one cleric who has shown some success in bringing peace to the conflict, at least in the Shiite areas of the country. Turkey has protested to the United States over airstrikes in the predominantly Turkmen city of Tal Afar, near its border. In Beiji, the sabotage of several pipelines has so severely hampered oil deliveries that the global price of a barrel jumped up yesterday, and electricity production throughout Iraq was sharply cut.

To many Americans, this undoubtedly seems far away and difficult to think about. But the disintegration of Iraq would be a catastrophe for America's standing in the world. It would leave the United States in a far worse position than it was in back in March 2003. And, right now, American soldiers are facing a higher number of daily attacks than they have all year. How, then, does President Bush propose to put things to rights? The American people deserve an honest answer.

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