Iraq's Complications
The administration's new rhetoric on the war doesn't bear much relation to the critical situation it faces.

Sunday, September 3, 2006

IN THE first of a series of speeches on Iraq last week President Bush described what he said would be the "absolutely disastrous" consequences if the United States withdrew its troops before "Iraq can defend itself": "We would be handing Iraq over to our own worst enemies," he said, "Saddam's former henchmen, armed groups with ties to Iran and al-Qaeda terrorists from all over the world who would suddenly have a base of operations far more valuable than Afghanistan under the Taliban."

The president is right that a precipitate withdrawal from Iraq, or one that ignored conditions on the ground, could lead to a far worse situation than now prevails there. But what's striking is Mr. Bush's failure to acknowledge that the scenario he describes already substantially exists. In large parts of Iraq, Sunni extremists and Iranian-backed militias hold more sway than the government, and al-Qaeda cells continue to operate. The government itself has been penetrated by some of those forces, which employ its ministries and police units to wage sectarian war.

In short, the situation in Iraq is a lot more complicated and ambiguous than what Americans are hearing described by the Bush administration in this electoral season. While that is predictable given this administration's record of distorting and politicizing its accounts of the war, it's particularly unfortunate now. Defending U.S. interests in Iraq in the coming months and avoiding the catastrophe Mr. Bush warns of are going to require navigating a political and military minefield in which there are no clear lines between friends and enemies or between democracy and totalitarianism.

Mr. Bush continues to portray Iraq mainly as a front in a global war against Islamic extremism in which a government aligned with the democracies fights an enemy allied with al-Qaeda. There's no question that al-Qaeda militants are among the forces fighting U.S. troops. But the administration's labels can't easily describe most of the conflict, which is a multi-sided struggle for power, territory and resources among Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish factions. Some of the warring sectarian groups are "insurgents" who fight the elected government, but others operate from inside the government. There are Islamic extremists on both the Sunni and Shiite sides who are fighting each other; there are battles between Shiite religious factions that are nominally allied in the government.

The U.S. challenge in Iraq is consequently not limited to defending a democratic government against its enemies while gradually training an army to take over the fighting. Its most critical challenge is preventing that government and army from being consumed by the parallel sectarian war -- which a more candid Pentagon report on Friday called "the greatest threat to security and stability in Iraq." That will require the factions to disband their own militias -- which are now responsible for most of the bloodshed -- and reach the national accord that is still needed on such issues as the distribution of oil revenue and the degree of self-government in the "federal" Iraq laid out in the incomplete constitution.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and many in his administration have endorsed this agenda, though their efforts to implement it have been slow and weak. If they are able to resolve the critical outstanding constitutional issues in the coming months and curb their militias, there's a chance the government can slowly begin to gain control over Iraq. As long as that chance exists the United States has both a pragmatic interest and a moral obligation to support the government and its army.

Nevertheless, the war President Bush would like to fight -- between an emerging democracy and its totalitarian enemies -- can't be won if it is crosscut by a sectarian conflict. That's why one other passage of the president's speech in Utah on Thursday was striking. "I've been clear with each Iraqi leader I meet," he said. "America's a patient nation, and Iraq can count on our partnership as long as the new government continues to make the hard decisions necessary to advance a unified, democratic and peaceful Iraq." We hope that Iraqi leaders will take the president's implicit warning seriously and that if those decisions are not made, Mr. Bush will have the courage to rethink his policy.

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