Whose war is it?

AMERICAN TROOPS must not be allowed to become helpless bystanders in Iraq's civil war. Nor can they become co-conspirators with a government intent on taking sides in this civil war. These two axioms should guide the Bush administration's Iraq policy in the weeks and months ahead.

The endgame to the administration's Mesopotamian adventure may be in sight, but the timeline cannot be dictated by U.S. electoral politics -- whether the triumph of the Democrats last month or the needs of Republican presidential hopefuls in 2008. It should depend on the military and political situation on the ground in Iraq.

U.S. troops should remain in that country, but only as long as the Iraqi government is willing and able to stay above the sectarian fray. Indeed, despite talk in Washington of troop reductions, a short-term increase in the number of U.S. troops may be necessary to help turn the tide on the streets of Baghdad and elsewhere in the country. U.S. troops may have to become even more involved in fighting the Sunni/Al Qaeda insurgency directly and in disarming Shiite militias. But they should only do so if the fledgling Iraqi government proves itself an ally committed to building a state that represents all Iraqi factions.

Iraq's commitment, and America's

That question -- what exactly is Iraq's government willing and able to do? -- provided the dramatic backdrop to last week's meeting in Jordan between President Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki. Bush's insistence that Maliki is the "right guy" to lead Iraq was belied by his own national security advisor, Stephen Hadley, who, in a memo leaked to the New York Times, wondered whether Maliki is simply too weak to crack down on the Shiite death squads run by his supporters, or whether he is unwilling to so do.

It's time to find out the answer. We don't know exactly what Bush told Maliki in private, but we hope he told him to clean up his Interior Ministry and to start arresting Shiite death squad leaders. U.S. forces might also execute -- or at least threaten to execute -- the outstanding arrest warrant on murder charges for Muqtada Sadr, who controls one of the largest Shiite militias and is now boycotting the government. Maliki needs to break with Sadr if he is to be a credible leader in the eyes of moderate Sunnis, and the U.S. needs to take on Sadr if it is to continue imploring neighboring Sunni nations to help bring stability to Iraq.

At the same time, U.S. forces must redouble their efforts to arrest the Sunni terrorists whose atrocities have so provoked the Shiites. Their leaders should be tried and punished; an end to impunity on both sides could help quell vigilantism and help erase the perception that U.S. forces are becoming bystanders to sectarian slaughter.

Security remains the necessary condition to the political development of a representative government, and an all-out civil war may soon make Iraqis yearn for the terrible old days of Saddam Hussein. Time is running out for the U.S. and Maliki to restore order.

Maliki has promised that Iraqi troops will be ready to take over from the U.S. within six months. Whether that's realistic or not, it's hard to imagine that the U.S. has any more time than that to improve matters. Bush needs to use the leverage gained by those 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq to pressure Sunnis and Shiites into peace.

Meanwhile, Bush could make the best use of the growing calls for withdrawal from Iraq to hint to Iran and Syria, very privately, that he might do just that. At the moment, Damascus and Tehran can afford to be spoilers, watching the U.S. bleed in Iraq while (so far) being spared the potentially chaotic consequences of a U.S. withdrawal. Suggestions that Saudi Arabia and Jordan might intervene to protect their Sunni brethren if an Iranian-backed Shiite Iraqi government were to rise in Baghdad, possibly triggering a regional conflagration, should give all sides pause.

These steps could bring pressure to bear on Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds to hammer out a new internal political compact that would keep Iraq intact but provide more local autonomy to deal with sectarian tensions. It would necessarily include a long-overdue deal to divide up the nation's oil wealth. Civil wars rarely end at the negotiating table until one side is defeated, or realizes it soon will be, or until stalemate or exhaustion sets in. That may also prove true in Iraq. But there is still time for the living to change history.

We recognize that none of this adds up to a tidy, satisfying road map; there are no easy exits from a quagmire. The quandary for Bush, in some senses ironic, is that the mission of removing Hussein and of turning the nation of Iraq over to its people has been accomplished -- but the outcome is still disastrous.

What is the U.S. to do if a sovereign government that represents the nation's long-oppressed majority is intent on settling scores by engaging in sectarian violence? Having dealt with the international dimensions of the threats posed by Hussein's regime (while continuing to worry about the international threat posed by anarchy within Iraq), Washington cannot indefinitely be held responsible for Iraq's domestic travails.

Which is not to say that it cannot be held responsible now. The Bush administration, let's be clear, did botch the postwar occupation of Iraq. Its poorly planned, arrogant and ahistoric approach to the aftermath of the invasion has been a blow to U.S. prestige and will earn Bush a prominent place among the roll call of failed presidents.

The (mis)uses of history

Decades from now, historians will still be debating whether a more competent occupation would have succeeded in building the peaceful, model democracy the administration once talked about, or whether sectarian violence and civil war were inevitable regardless. For now, we can ask how the most powerful nation in the world squandered billions of dollars and tens of thousands of (mostly Iraqi) lives in such a fiasco.

It is often noted that George Marshall had more than three years to develop his occupation plans for Japan and Germany, while retired Lt. Gen. Jay Garner had 60 days to develop his for Iraq. Yet the fault lies not merely in the short time span but in the erratic nature of the planning, which was yanked from the State Department to the National Security Council to the Pentagon and from Garner to J. Paul Bremer III.

Each team spurned the work of its bureaucratic predecessors, and each refused to listen to their country's leading Middle East experts, whose warnings were interpreted as proof of ideological incorrectness. Each also turned a deaf ear to their British allies, whose experiences occupying Iraq after World War I were to prove shockingly relevant.

Historians may identify April 12, 2003, as the day the United States began to lose the peace in Iraq. That's when Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, responding to reports of widespread looting, declined to order up more U.S. troops to keep order and protect Iraqi lives and property. Instead, an irritated Rumsfeld asserted that the looting wasn't as bad as media reports made it seem, that it was an understandable result of the pent-up frustration of decades of repression and that "stuff happens."

"Stuff was tolerated" is more like it -- and, as anyone familiar with the "broken windows" theory of crime prevention knows, failure to enforce law and order in small ways tends to encourage more brazen provocations. Veterans of conflicts past warned that day that if more troops did not arrive, terrified Iraqis would turn to their own ethnic kin for self-protection. No one was listening.

The administration's overreaching de-Baathification policy was another terrible blunder. Garner wanted to fire the top three layers of Hussein loyalists and leave Iraqis to deal with the rest, keeping some semblance of a civilian government in place; the Pentagon's Iraqi siren, Ahmad Chalabi, wanted to gut the ancien regime. Chalabi won, and thousands of low-level Sunnis were sacked and replaced by Shiites who saw no need to provide services to Sunni areas.

The senseless disbanding of the Iraqi army also helped bolster the insurgency. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz erroneously claimed that the Iraqi army had melted away; without consulting the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he and Bremer scrapped the military's plans to order the Iraqi rank and file back for vetting, in exchange for a $20 bonus (six months' pay).

By the time the U.S. military got that order countermanded, it was July. The armed, unemployed and alienated Sunni soldiers didn't wait for Washington to make a decision. Some joined the insurgency. By the time Al Qaeda began to foment attacks on Shiites in August 2003, Sunnis distrusted and disdained the U.S. and had ample motive to make common cause.

The disbanding of the Iraqi civil service and military was especially damaging in light of the administration's haste to transfer sovereignty to a new government. To this day, Washington is paying the price for relying on governmental institutions that it essentially dismantled at the outset of the occupation.

Tempering hope with realism

The history is instructive and, as usual, the road to the present from the past is more apparent than the road ahead, which can at times feel like the quest for the least-disastrous outcome. Iraq can't be a threat to its neighbors. It can't be a trigger for a regional war. It can't become a hollow, failed state that plays host to international terrorists. That much is clear.

U.S. troops should minimize the bloodshed while there is a pluralistic government in place; widespread ethnic cleansing must be averted. These are murkier goals, harder to pursue.

As for the model shining democracy setting an example for the entire Middle East -- well, Iraq's realities may have gotten in the way of this particular Washington fantasy.

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