Friday, August 04, 2006

Iraq Situation Grows More Confused; Just Who Are We Fighting?

As testimony Thursday to Congress by U.S. military commanders made clear, the situation in Iraq is now so complicated, it is uncertain just who the U.S. is fighting there today, and who it may be fighting tomorrow.

It used to be that the main trouble and insurrection were taking place in the Sunni triangle west of Baghdad, although the forces of Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr were periodically troublesome. Now, sectarian fighting has moved primarily into Baghdad, where Sunnis are killing Shiites and vice versa by the thousands each month. Efforts by the new Iraqi "government" to quell the fighting have been so unsuccessful, and the government forces so unreliable, that a senior British diplomat in Iraq has reported to Prime Minister Blair that a civil war and partition are more likely in Iraq than democracy.

There can be little doubt, meanwhile, that Iran is capitalizing on the situation, sending bombs and other military supplies to the Shiites in the country and encouraging them to attack American forces.

The Shiites, of course, are also the main supporters of the Hezbollah terrorists in their ongoing war with Israel, while Sunni Arab states such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt tacitly side with the Sunnis against the Shiites.

Under these cloudy circumstances, is it too much to say we could find ourselves ultimately siding more with the Sunnis than the Shiites?

More than that, if relations between the U.S. and Iran continue to deteriorate, and a general Middle East war between Sunnis and Shiites breaks out, is it not likely that the 130,000 American troops in Iraq could find themselves in a poor strategic position, beset upon by both sides? Would, under extreme circumstances, they have to retreat to the more friendly Kurd redoubt in the north?

In Thursday's testimony to Congress, both the U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. John P. Abizaid and the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Peter Pace, warned that sectarian violence is increasing, a civil war is growing more likely (some say a low-grade civil war is already taking place), and U.S. options are not entirely clear. Also testifying, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld focused more on saying it would be a catastrophe if the U.S. left Iraq than on giving any plan for successful prosecution of the war.

With polls now indicating that Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a supporter of the war effort, is trailing his anti-war challenger in next Tuesday's Connecticut Democratic primary by double digits, there can be little doubt that a Lieberman primary defeat would intensify anti-war sentiment in the U.S. and send the Democratic party into new queasiness about the entire War on Terror.

Speaking of queasiness, the column by Thomas Friedman in the New York Times today moves this normally changable columnist to new pessimism. Friedman comes closer than he ever has to advocating a pullout of American forces from Iraq. He writes, notably, "Yes, the best way to contain Iran would have been to produce a real Shiite-led democracy in Iraq, exposing the phone one in Tehran. But second best is leaving Iraq. Because the worst option -- the one Iran loves -- is for us to stay in Iraq, bleeding, and in easy range to be hit by Iran if we strike its nukes."

I continue to be a supporter of the war effort, in part because the alternatives for us seem to me less palatable than continuing to fight, but it would be nice to think that the Bush Administration has more of a plan for success in Iraq than it seems to at present. Wars are customarily filled with mistakes and disappointments, but it is foolish for us not to realize that this one is not going well.


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