Sunday, May 28, 2006

The Price of Iraq

The New York Times
The Price of Iraq

When President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain talked about progress in Iraq at a joint news conference last week, one thing was evident. The two world leaders who plotted the original invasion have, at least, come a long way in realizing how many things have gone wrong. Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair, who have always been the cheerleaders for the Iraq initiative, seemed positively downbeat, even as they insisted that democratization would make everything right in the end.

Iraq now does have a constitutional government, elected by the Iraqis themselves. But that will make no difference at all unless that government can provide all its citizens with basic order and security.

Right now armed gangs of thugs, many of them wearing government uniforms, are spreading terror throughout the country. Some were trained by American forces to work for the Interior Ministry, but actually do the bidding of Shiite political and religious leaders. They harass, kidnap and murder people who follow different religious practices or support competing politicians, often with the help of weapons and equipment provided by an American government that had very different objectives in mind. The Times reported last week that Sunni forces working for the Ministry of Defense who were supposed to be guarding Iraq's oil pipeline were instead freelancing as death squads, assassinating people who cooperated with the same government that paid the gunmen's salaries.

Of all of George Bush's many arguments for the invasion, the only one that has survived exposure to reality is that Iraqis deserve something better than a brutal dictatorship. But right now the country appears on the way to a civil war among the armed groups competing to impose order on their own terms. To avoid repeating a very bad history, the nation's security forces must be brought under control by people who have both the will and the capacity to truly unite the nation.

The fact that the current government avoided naming any officials to the posts that control the military and internal security forces when it announced its first cabinet was a clear sign of how difficult that task would be. And coming up with acceptable nominees is just the first and easiest step. The current military and civilian police forces must be purged of their brutal and lawless elements, and the numerous private militias must be made to stand down and disarm.

American forces can never be a substitute for Iraqi soldiers and police officers who take seriously their duty to protect all the people, regardless of religion or ethnicity. Mr. Bush's premise that American troops should simply stay on the ground until Iraq gets things right and defeats all insurgent forces and terrorist groups, however long it takes, is flat wrong. The United States presence is dangerous — to the soldiers themselves, to American standing in the world, and most tellingly to large numbers of innocent Iraqis.

The currently emerging story about what happened last November in Haditha, where at least two dozen Iraqi men, women and children were apparently shot by a small group of American marines, is only the latest indication of what terrible things can happen when soldiers are required to occupy hostile civilian territory in the midst of an armed insurrection and looming civil war. A military investigation is currently deciding whether any of the marines should be charged with murder, and whether a cover-up took place. All these questions have awful resonance for those who remember Vietnam, and what that prolonged and ultimately pointless war did to both the Vietnamese and the American social fabric.

It was somewhat reassuring that Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair have stopped trying to pretend that everything has gone just fine in Iraq, since most of the rest of the world already knows otherwise. But it was very disturbing to hear them follow their expressions of regret with the same old "stay the course" fantasy. It's time for Mr. Bush either to chart a course that can actually be followed, or admit that there is none.