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A Whole New War

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By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, July 26, 2006; 12:56 PM

President Bush and national security adviser Stephen Hadley yesterday for the first time publicly acknowledged the momentous shift in the role for U.S. troops in Iraq, from fighting terrorists to trying to suppress religious violence.

This sea change was described in such understated terms that it was eclipsed by news about the crisis in Lebanon. Bush described a change in tactics; Hadley called it a repositioning.

But it's a historic admission: That job one for many American troops in Iraq is no longer fighting al-Qaeda terrorists, or even insurgents. Rather, it is trying to quell an incipient -- if not already raging -- sectarian civil war, with Baghdad as ground zero.

Arguably, that's been the case for quite a while. But having the White House own up to it is a very big deal.

As things stand now, an overwhelming majority of the American public no longer supports Bush's handling of the war, which they think was a mistake in the first place. A majority wants American troops to start coming home soon. What unqualified support there is for the war seems to come from people who believe it is central front in the war on terror.

But how will people feel about our troops being sent into the crossfire between rival Muslim sects? That is not the war anyone signed up to fight.

Here's the transcript of Bush's short press availability with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

"Obviously, the violence in Baghdad is still terrible," Bush said. "And, therefore, there needs to be more troops. In other words, the commanders said, what more can we do; how best to address the conditions on the ground. And they have recommended, as a result of working with the Prime Minister, based upon his recommendation, that we increase the number of U.S. troops in Baghdad, alongside of Iraqi troops. And we're going to do that."

A few hours later, in a press briefing , Hadley explained what Bush was talking about:

"Obviously, with the bombing in February of the Golden Mosque, that, in some sense, was a critical event, and it has touched off greater sectarian violence than we had seen before. And that's what is troublesome. . . .

"You've now seen the emergence of death squads and armed groups on right and left, and they're doing great damage to the civilian population. That's really what is new. It's something that we've seen occur since February, and it is a new challenge. This isn't about insurgency, this isn't about terror, this is about sectarian violence."

As it happens, the least understated acknowledgment of this historic change yesterday came from Maliki. Asked about comments by Army Gen. John P. Abizaid in a New York Times story last week, that escalating sectarian violence in Baghdad had become a greater worry than the insurgency, Maliki replied: "The most important element in the security plan is to curb the religious violence. . . . And, God willing, there will be no civil war in Iraq."


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