Impatience, please

April 15, 2007

The International Committee of the Red Cross warns that conditions for ordinary Iraqis are bad, and getting worse. Pierre Kraehenbuehl, director of operations for the ICRC, says there is no evidence that the security crackdown in Baghdad has done anything to improve security or living conditions for its residents.

In just the year following the February 2006 bombing of the Golden Dome mosque in Samarra, which may have been the definitive moment in the turn toward sectarian warfare, 106,000 families have been displaced from their homes, notes a Red Cross report released last week. That's a half-million people or more. It's a number that's so large and impersonal that it's hard to fully grasp what it means.

We could point out that, on a proportional scale, it would be as if 6 million Americans had been driven from their homes by a year of fighting. But that's hard to imagine, too. Another comparison: In 1999, some 300,000 Kosovar Albanians fled their province for Macedonia and Albania. Thousands more were booted out of their homes and driven into nearby forests and mountains.

Weeping wives and mothers, crossing into Albania, told chilling tales day after day of the murder and mutilation of their husbands and sons, tales that filled the world's newspapers and television screens and that spurred international action to stop the crimes. It was Europe's biggest and most acute humanitarian crisis since 1945 - and it was smaller in scope and in numbers than what is occurring in Iraq.

To be sure, no one could accuse the Bush administration of turning its back on Iraq - but American troops there are not alleviating the crisis. The policy is a failure. The Red Cross reports that half of Iraq's doctors have left the country. (It fails to note that Sunni Arabs are extremely reluctant to take their wounded to hospitals because the health ministry is in the hands of militant Shiites.) The availability of fresh water is declining. The country, says the report, is "sliding to disaster."

Iraq can't wait. It can't wait for something to turn up that will vindicate President Bush's stubbornness, and it can't wait for his term to end. The U.S. Army, which out of necessity will be extending tours of duty in Iraq from 12 months to 15 months, can't wait much longer, either. The only possible way to stem the disintegration of Iraq is through the joint efforts of its regional neighbors, working in conjunction with the government in Baghdad and with the U.S. It means diplomacy and compromise - anathema to this White House, but urgently vital to the future of the Middle East.

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