Old times there

March 16, 2006

Iraq is not going to have a Fort Sumter moment. Right now the country is torn by sectarian violence, and although that might remain steady or even decrease, the big fear is that it will take a bad turn for the worse. But there will be no defining act that heralds civil war. No flag will be raised or cannon fired to mark its beginning. If a civil war should happen, it will become obvious only after it has gotten under way. Some believe that Iraq has even now passed that point.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld says he thinks the country isn't there yet. But he also says that if a civil war should break out, American troops will not get involved. That's a fine idea, but it's awfully hard to imagine how it could happen, especially considering that at least one side in such a conflict - and more likely two sides, or even more - would probably be targeting American soldiers when they had a chance. This won't be a civil war with armies maneuvering in the field, but a nasty series of street fights with Americans and everyone else in the crossfire. It won't be Bull Run; it will be Lebanon.

Since December, the United States has sensibly been trying to find common ground with Sunni Arab politicians, but the majority Shiites have been unwilling to go along, and they've now effectively alienated the Kurds as well. The new constitution is a blueprint for disaster, and the Shiites are sticking to it - but after centuries of domination, and three years in which thousands of Shiite Iraqis have been killed by Sunni insurgents, it's not hard to understand why the Shiites are feeling aggrieved. This week, Shiite clerics have called for calm, with disturbingly little effect. A truck stacked with bodies turned up in Baghdad on Tuesday; how many American-trained cops had to look the other way for that to happen?

The question Americans must now face - even as an extra battalion is now on its way to Iraq - is how to manage the coming crisis. Hanging around and hoping for the best isn't good enough.

There's an unavoidable contradiction in Iraq that is emerging from the U.S. occupation: Neither Shiites nor Sunnis are willing to accept a political arrangement that cedes the upper hand to the other group, despite Washington's hopes that some magical compromise could be found. In this one way, Iraq does perhaps resemble the United States of 1861. Very few people want civil war. No one seems to have a workable plan to avoid one.

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