Murder, in a time of war

August 07, 2005

THE HEAVY LOSSES suffered in western Iraq last week by the Marine Reserve unit from Ohio were shocking and painful, but the abduction and murder of a freelance journalist in Basra may tell us more about the direction Iraq is headed. And what it says isn't good.

Basra is in the southern part of the country, in the British sector, and it's far away from the scenes of the headline-grabbing insurgency. Basra was seemingly at peace, one of those places where the political development of a new Iraq could take place.

But Steven Vincent, who wrote for several publications, had been in Basra for two extended stays, and what he was discovering was that the city was run by armed gangs - some political, some criminal - which had thoroughly infiltrated the police, and in fact had benefited from the training provided by British troops. Mr. Vincent's writings had not attracted a great deal of attention; that changed when he was killed, most likely by one of those gangs.

Basra, overwhelmingly Shiite, has experienced little serious sectarian tension; nonetheless, there's ample reason to suppose that it will be convulsed in violence as soon as the British pull out.

The bad news is that Basra is certainly not an isolated case among the "quiet" cities of Iraq; there is no good news.

The continuing toll of American casualties has started to swing U.S. public opinion against the administration's Iraq policy, now that the insurgency is entering its third year, more emboldened than ever. That shift in opinion is mirrored by a growing realization within the administration that Iraq is costing the United States dearly, and there is a new willingness to consider a reduction in forces next year.

Americans recoiled when 14 Marines were killed while riding in a lightly armored amphibious vehicle - in the desert. Many are asking for the first time what kind of war the country has gotten into.

But to step back from the immediate mayhem is to see - in Basra and elsewhere - that Iraq is disintegrating as a nation. Even as plans go forward to present a new constitution a week from tomorrow (a constitution that leaves the big issues unaddressed), there are factions preparing for a fight. Time is not on the side of those who would hope to contain the violence. But an Iraq in flames will be a disaster for the entire Middle East, and thus for any nation anywhere that must rely on imported oil.

If the administration could show convincingly how it plans to restore order in Iraq, it might be worth staying. But there has been no sign of that so far; the next-best alternative is to make it clear that American troops are going to begin leaving. That might help to focus the minds of Iraqi leaders on finding political solutions, before the anger and resentment have boiled over and the disintegration is complete.

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