Their fight

March 18, 2007

Gen. David Petraeus wrote the book on counterinsurgency (literally), and the administration's hopes are on his shoulders as he takes command in Iraq. But generals are always at risk of fighting the previous war, and the conflict in Iraq isn't the insurgency it once was. As even the Pentagon concedes in its latest survey, this is by many measures a civil war.

And Americans are right in the middle of it.

The Shiite militias are lying low as the U.S. and Iraqi government forces seek to establish relative calm in Baghdad; effectively, the Shiite leaders, at war with the Sunnis, are letting the Americans do their fighting for them, until they're ready to take up arms again. It's difficult to see what strategic goal this will accomplish - beyond strengthening Iran's hand, postponing the inevitable day of reckoning in Iraq, and getting more Americans killed in the meantime.

The stated U.S. objective under President Bush's "surge" - for which General Petraeus keeps seeking additional troops - is to pacify Baghdad. Ostensibly, the rest of the country will then fall in line, but a more skeptical view suggests that the U.S. has simply given up on the rest of the country. The British have set the tone, setting in motion a withdrawal from Basra in the south that will leave that whole region in the hands of religious militias. President Bush once hoped to make Iraq a beacon of hope for the Middle East; now his administration has set its sights on trying to reduce the mayhem inside the city limits of Baghdad.

But even if it succeeds in making the capital a calmer place, it will be an illusory and temporary peace. By invading Iraq, the U.S. tore that country and its people asunder; now Iraqis are at each other's throats, and the prospects for reconciliation evaporated a long time ago. Choosing sides in a religious civil war is a dangerous business - all the more so if it happens without the choosers realizing what they've done.

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