WHEN THE Iraq war began in March 2003, the American plan was clear. We would eliminate Saddam Hussein and his weapons of mass destruction and punish him for refusing to comply with U.N. Security Council resolutions and for supporting Al Qaeda. We would also reinvent Iraq in our image. It would be democratic and secular, with equal political representation and economic opportunity, respect for human rights, civil liberties, the rule of law and, oh yes, full participation by women and minority groups. It would be quick, painless and simple, and Iraqis would be eternally grateful.
But as everyone now knows, Iraqis did not follow our script. They voted along ethnic and sectarian interests and for more, not less, Islam in law and government. Today, Iraq is fast becoming ungovernable. Extremists from Sunni and Shiite communities are trying to turn what had long been a secular, integrated and modernizing society into an ethnic and Islamist paradise that, if achieved, would put even Iran to shame.
There is little point in debating whether Iraq is in civil war yet. Random killings, ethnic cleansing by all sides and rampant corruption are pushing society in that direction. Armed militias and vicious gangs kill for profit and pleasure, and occasionally for religion or ethnicity. The real fight is all about power, money and control. Iraqis, not Americans, are the primary targets. Yes, the United States must eventually leave, many Iraqis say, only do not leave us alone with ourselves just now.
The danger signs are everywhere. Oil-rich Kirkuk could at any moment explode into Kurd-Arab warfare. Turkey is threatening cross-border attacks to eliminate Kurdish terrorists who are hostile to Turkey, while the Islamic Republic of Iran has shelled anti-regime terrorists in northern Iraq. And sooner or later, Iran will renew its demands for reparations from the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, as well as for territorial guarantees. This could weaken if not break the fragile government in Baghdad.
If Iraq descends into full-blown civil war -- and it is almost there -- then militia will fight militia, Sunni will fight Shiite, and Arab will fight Kurd.
What then should the U.S. do? Should we admit defeat and go home? Maybe Iraqis are still not ready for democracy? Or maybe there is no such thing as Iraq, only three artificial ministates created by political manipulation, militia terror and ethnic cleansing?
American pundits and politicians have quickly sketched out simple exit strategies: partition Iraq into a Sunni-Shiite-Kurd confederation and withdraw our troops; let the Iraqis experience their civil war without us; send in more troops to ferret out terrorists and win the battle for Baghdad
The problem with all of these strategies is the same: They focus on our needs, our politics, our standards of democracy, our casualties, our potential loss of regional influence and our dependence on oil. But the struggle is no longer just about achieving U.S. goals; it’s all about Iraq, and it is all about survival. Latest estimates indicate that 50 Iraqi civilians are killed for every U.S. casualty. Still, I believe that it is in the U.S. interest to see Iraq survive as a united country or we will face chronic instability and Iraq-based terrorists coming to our shores.
The truth is, we have few options:
* Withdrawal: Pundits and politicians see chaos and want out. I respect those questioning American unilateralist preemption strategies. But I worry about the consequences for U.S. interests if we abandon an Iraq we helped create and friends who would be set up for failure in a neighborhood we gas guzzlers love. A bad option.
* Send in more troops to “win the war”: We need to define what winning means and assess the probable costs. Army Gen. John Abizaid, the senior U.S. commander in the Middle East, warned last week that more troops are needed if the battle for Baghdad -- and thereby Iraq -- is to be won. President Bush promised Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki in their meeting Tuesday that U.S. troops would be redeployed from other parts of Iraq, but it is not clear that additional forces won’t be needed as well. How long will we be needed in Iraq? No one can say. But it seems to me we still have responsibility for helping Iraq survive what we set in motion three years ago. Surely, we can maintain our security presence, prepare military and police forces to take over security duties, provide training and protection, and help fragile political institutions take root. Sending more troops would be a politically unpopular move, but if U.S. commanders need them to maintain the pressure on terrorists and provide more security, they should have them.
* Partition Iraq: This would almost certainly spawn civil war. Iraq’s Kurdish, Sunni Arab and Shiite communities are not monoliths; each has its secularists and Islamists, rich and poor, oligarchs and peasants. None will be satisfied with a “Sunnistan-Kurdistan-Shiastan” divide. Some say Iraq is already a failed state or was never meant to be a state at all. Others see Lebanon as a warning about what could happen in Iraq. Consider Lebanon -- unable to control extremist forces, plagued by a long history of civil unrest and an easy target for intervention by stronger neighbors who play on inbred political weaknesses. Is this a vision of Iraq? The ingredients are there, including stronger neighbors meddling, a deepening social chasm and divided communal loyalties encouraged by foreign occupiers and warlords. Partition is playing with fire.
Washing our hands of Iraq may sound appealing, but the truth is, we will care very much if extremists enriched by Iraq’s wealth have a place to prepare for their next terrorist campaign. Will it be New York or Washington or Los Angeles? In the 1980s, Iraqi Shiites cooperated with Lebanese Hezbollah’s No. 1 terrorist, Imad Mughniyah, in a series of bombings, hijackings and assassination attempts in the Persian Gulf. Do we want a return to these good old days? I think not.
Staying the course in Iraq will not solve all of Iraq’s problems, and it will, sadly, mean more casualties in the short term. But withdrawal will not end the violence, ensure that Iraqis live happily ever after in their enclaves or end anti-American terrorism. We will still be targets, as will pro-American friends and U.S. interests in the region.
The war and occupation have wedded American and Iraqi national interests. Iraq’s fate will affect our own. Leaving the Iraqis to civil war will only condemn them, the region and probably the United States to more wars to come.