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Thursday, March 16, 2006 03:43 pm

Three years and counting

Time to remove our troops from an untenable situation in Iraq

On March 19, 2003, the Bush administration launched what has become one of the longest-running wars in U.S. history. Now, on the third anniversary of the start of the war, we are just beginning to feel the full effects of the greatest catastrophe in American foreign policy since the Vietnam War. We are all familiar with the staggering costs of the Iraq War: more than 2,300 Americans killed, more than 16,000 wounded or maimed; about 30,000 direct Iraqi deaths and more than 100,000 attributable to the war; upward of $300 billion in direct war expenditures and close to $1 trillion in estimated total costs. We are also painfully aware of the longer-term damage to U.S. foreign policy and to our standing in the world. The war has bred a new generation of religious extremists, dangerously heightened sectarian tensions in the Islamic world, strengthened Iran’s hand in Iraq and in matters of nuclear diplomacy, and created the most serious threat to the world’s oil supply since the OPEC embargo — all the while undermining American authority and straining the U.S. military to the breaking point. But these facts and figures do not capture the full tragedy that Iraq has become or the horror that may yet befall that country and indeed the region. As recent events make clear, Iraq is now on the verge of a full-scale civil war, which U.S. forces are helpless to prevent and for which they are increasingly blamed by all sides. The bloodbath after the bombing of the golden-domed Shiite mosque in Samarra claimed more than 1,400 lives as angry Shiite mobs attacked Sunni mosques and killed their Sunni neighbors. This outbreak came after months of low-intensity ethnic cleansing in many Iraqi neighborhoods and increasing targeting of Sunnis by Shiite militias. Throughout the three years of the war, the administration and its supporters have tried to create the illusion of progress by hyping one democratic “landmark” after another. Each landmark was just another step toward the violence and misery that now engulfs ordinary Iraqis. Yet the only democratic landmark that really matters — establishing a national unity government capable of keeping order and beginning the reconstruction of the country — eludes our efforts. Still, the effort to discredit those who would question American policy in Iraq continues with the usual attacks on the patriotism and steadfastness of those who argue for a U.S. withdrawal or even for establishing a timetable for withdrawal. Vice President Dick Cheney warns about “defeatists” who would have the United States leave Iraq before finishing the job. Now we are told that if we leave, the civil war will get worse, and indeed it could. The past few weeks have offered a glimpse into the future: Sunni fighting Shiite, Shiite fighting Sunni, one Shiite militia fighting another Shiite militia — many blaming the U.S. for the violence and all eventually targeting American soldiers. After the bombing of the Shiite mosque, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and one of the most powerful Shiites, blamed the U.S. ambassador for giving a green light to terrorist bombers by insisting that Supreme Council-controlled Shiite militias be disarmed. Other Shiite leaders offered similar complaints, and, perhaps more ominous, the Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani called for tribal militias to guard Shiite shrines and personalities, a sign that he wants Shiite militias to take things into their own hands. Meanwhile, Sunnis quickly pointed the finger at U.S. troops for not protecting Sunni mosques and worshipers from Shiite retaliation, even as Sunni insurgents vowed to continue their attacks on U.S. forces. The occupation has turned both major sectarian groups against the U.S. At this point, there may be little America can do to stop the sectarian violence or the momentum toward civil war. The best we can do is remove U.S. forces and seek the help of other nations to keep the violence from spreading, in the hope that this will help change the dynamic in Iraq. As much as we would like to fix what we “broke,” we do not have the legitimacy or the know-how. The American public, the men and women in uniform and the Iraqis themselves all seem to recognize this. Only 30 percent of Americans favor the Bush administration’s handling of Iraq, 72 percent of U.S. troops serving in Iraq believe U.S. forces should leave in the next year, and, possibly most revealing of all, 87 percent of all Iraqis want an end to the U.S. occupation while 47 percent support attacks on our troops. It is time to get U.S. forces out of the untenable position the Bush administration has put them in. The question is: When will our “leaders” in Washington come to accept that same conclusion and at least prevent the futile loss of more American lives?
Adapted from an editorial in the March 27, 2006, edition of The Nation.

Copyright © 2006 The Nation.
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