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No simple answers in Iraq



Published: Mon, September 4, 2006 @ 12:00 a.m.



Washington Post: 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-Qaida 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-Qaida 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.

It's a minefield

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 as a front in a global war against Islamic extremism in which a government aligned with the democracies fights an enemy allied with al-Qaida. There's no question that al-Qaida 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.

The most critical U.S. 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.

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.




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