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War of attrition

October 06, 2005

THE WORSENING MILITARY SITUATION in Iraq now threatens to be matched by declining political conditions there. In the last week, more than 140 Iraqis have been killed in a series of bombings, and U.S. Army officials downgraded from three to one the number of Iraqi battalions capable of acting on their own. Meanwhile, Shiites and Kurds attempted to rig the Oct. 15 referendum on the new constitution in an effort to further marginalize the Sunnis, backing down only under strong U.S. and United Nations pressure.

It's difficult if not impossible to reconcile President Bush's upbeat reports of progress, such as the one he delivered Wednesday in the Rose Garden, with reality. We hope for a more clear-eyed assessment in his planned speech today.

The consequences abroad

Success in Iraq is crucial not just for Bush, obviously, but across the Middle East, where the escalating violence is causing alarm. Two weeks ago, the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al Faisal, said Iraq was hurtling toward disintegration and could draw other countries in the region into a civil war. While the Bush administration promotes a vision of a democratic Iraq as a beacon for the Middle East, Iraq's neighbors worry about a different beacon: a fractured state that's a magnet for insurgents who train and gain combat experience in Iraq and return home to wreak havoc.

Last week, Bush warned that Iraqi extremists would increase their attacks before the referendum and, if it passes, before the planned December vote for a new national assembly. Yet the level of carnage as Bush spoke already was dreadfully high. On Sept. 26, insurgents dragged five Shiite Muslim schoolteachers and their driver into a classroom in a mostly Sunni village and shot and killed them. That same day, a suicide attack and roadside bombings killed 10 Iraqis and three U.S. soldiers. Soon after, a series of coordinated bombings in Balad, north of Baghdad, killed a stunning 95 people. On Wednesday, a bomb exploded at the entrance to a Shiite Muslim mosque south of Baghdad on the first day of Ramadan, killing at least 36 people and wounding 95.

Sunnis are blamed for most of the violence and for trying to foment civil war. Sunni Muslims account for only about 20% of the Iraqi population, but they wielded immense power under Saddam Hussein, a fellow Sunni. Sunnis boycotted the January election for an interim national assembly and as a result were mostly sidelined as the draft constitution was written. It's their prerogative to protest the political process by not taking part in it. But an Iraq without Sunni representation is a country on the road to breaking up, a Middle Eastern version of Yugoslavia. Shiites and Kurds should understand the stakes.

Instead, Shiite and Kurdish lawmakers this week decided that the constitution would take effect unless two-thirds of registered voters, not two-thirds of those actually voting, rejected the law in three or more provinces. Fewer than two-thirds of the voters cast ballots in January; the turnout in Sunni areas was far lower because of the boycott and continuing violence. Had the national assembly not reversed course Wednesday, the constitution would have passed easily.

This back-door attempt to guarantee approval of the constitution failed, but it succeeded in further poisoning the political atmosphere by reinforcing Sunni beliefs that the Shiites and Kurds want to run roughshod over them. Many Sunnis believe that constitutional provisions for decentralization mean the rival communities will control Iraq's oil wealth.

The consequences at home

The U.S. generals running the Iraq war now agree with critics who contend that the presence of nearly 150,000 American troops is energizing insurgents and creating dependency among Iraqi forces. Army Gen. George W. Casey said last week that reducing the number of U.S. troops would remove one source of fuel for insurgents: the view of "coalition forces as an occupying force." That welcome realism is a far cry from rosy prewar scenarios. Nearly 2,000 U.S. troops have been killed since the invasion; one estimate of Iraqi civilian deaths is more than 29,000.

Another prewar mistake was betting on Iraqi oil to finance reconstruction. The U.S. has spent more than $1 billion, yet oil production remains below the estimated prewar level of 2.5 million barrels per day, let alone last December's target of 3 million barrels per day. Electricity generation is about where it was before the war but below the targets of two years ago.

Iraqis who welcomed American troops and rejoiced at Hussein's overthrow now blame the U.S. for not protecting them from insurgents or even common criminals. Residents in Basra complain that the southern city is in the grip of Islamic fundamentalists more like the theocrats in Iran than the secular rulers the U.S. hoped to see run the country.

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