On March 19, 2003, without the approval of the United Nations Security Council and against the advice of many of America’s closest allies, the Bush Administration launched what has become one of the longest-running wars in US 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 in lives and money of the Iraq War: 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 US 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 in the region and straining the US 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 US forces are helpless to prevent and for which they are increasingly blamed by all sides. The blood bath following 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 followed months of low-intensity ethnic cleansing in many Iraqi neighborhoods and increasing targeting of Sunnis by Shiite militias, many of them operating under cover of the Interior Ministry and the Iraqi army the United States has been training.
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. But as this magazine has warned all along, each landmark was just another step toward the violence and misery that now engulfs ordinary Iraqis. Meanwhile, the only democratic landmark that really matters–establishing an accountable national unity government capable of keeping order and beginning the reconstruction of the country–still eludes the efforts of America’s Ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad. Khalilzad may understand the importance of a national unity government better than his predecessors, but he cannot make up for the original sin of the invasion and occupation or for all the crimes and mistakes, from Falluja to Abu Ghraib to a flawed constitutional process.
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 US withdrawal or even for establishing a timetable for withdrawal. Vice President Cheney warns about “defeatists” who would have the United States leave Iraq before finishing the job.
Over the past three years, the Administration has offered us a succession of reasons we must “stay the course” to match the succession of rationales for the war itself. An American withdrawal, we were told, would embolden the insurgency, make Iraq a safe haven for terrorists and foreign jihadis and lead to civil war. One by one each of these predictions has come true. Not, of course, because we withdrew or even announced a timetable for withdrawal or redeployment but because we could not control the forces the war and the occupation unleashed or created.
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 United States for the violence and all eventually targeting American soldiers. Following 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 US ambassador for giving a green light to terrorist bombers by insisting that SCIRI-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 US troops for not protecting Sunni mosques and worshipers from Shiite retaliation, even as Sunni insurgents vowed to continue their attacks on US forces. Thus in a worrying development, the American occupation has succeeded in turning both major sectarian groups in Iraq against the United States.
At this point, there may be little America can do to stop the sectarian violence or the momentum toward civil war. As Juan Cole noted in his blog, Informed Comment, during the latest violence, “the US military ordered the US soldiers in Baghdad to stay in their barracks and not to circulate if it could be helped,” illustrating just how useless the American ground forces are in Iraq.
The best we can do is remove US 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 US troops serving in Iraq believe US forces should leave in the next year and, possibly most revealing of all, 87 percent of all Iraqis want an end to the US occupation while 47 percent support attacks on US troops. It is time to get US 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?