Time to disconnect

August 13, 2006

The apparent plot to blow up airplanes over the Atlantic clarifies something important about the war in Iraq: The time has come for even its proponents to stop thinking of it as part of the "war on terror." Separating the wide-ranging fight against Islamist extremism, on the one hand, from the war in Iraq, on the other, would be an important step toward finding some measure of resolution in both conflicts.

The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, propelled President Bush toward Iraq; the hijackers were Saudis, Yemenis and Jordanians, and it's clear the administration was intent on bringing a new order to the Middle East so as to deal with the radicalism brewing there. It decided to overthrow the regime in Iraq as a way of getting started. There were plenty of arguments about that - but it's what happened. The president continues to call Iraq the "central front in the war on terror."

But look what direction terror has taken: bombings in London, Madrid, Bali, New Delhi and Mumbai and now the "liquid bomb" plot. Not one of these involved Middle Easterners in any important role. They were all apparently the work of disaffected local Muslims. The reality has been that the Middle East has not become the font of terror.

Instead, Iraq has seen a home-grown insurgency gradually evolve into a full-fledged sectarian conflict. A civil war can't be a war against "terror," and it's not very useful to pretend that it can.

What threat does the fighting in Iraq pose to the region and the world? Dangerous instability in the Middle East. This is a perfect time for the Bush administration to acknowledge that the war in Iraq has changed; it's a vicious civil war, and it threatens to spill over. Put it that way, and it quickly becomes evident that other nations, especially Iraq's neighbors, have a genuine interest in containing and dampening the fighting between Shiites and Sunnis. A recognition of reality would in fact make it easier for the U.S., after all this time, to fashion an international solution.

And that leaves terror, Heathrow style. With Iraq quieted, or at least quieting down, a prime cause of Muslim resentment would be diminished - but more important, the U.S. could work with other nations to focus its still considerable powers on tackling the problem of jihadist extremism without the distraction of a major military engagement in the Middle East. Ending the confusion about Iraq and terror would advance the prospects for progress on both fronts.

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