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Whose war is it?

The U.S. commitment to Iraq will depend on Iraqis' commitment to their country and one another.

December 03, 2006

AMERICAN TROOPS must not be allowed to become helpless bystanders in Iraq's civil war. Nor can they become co-conspirators with a government intent on taking sides in this civil war. These two axioms should guide the Bush administration's Iraq policy in the weeks and months ahead.

The endgame to the administration's Mesopotamian adventure may be in sight, but the timeline cannot be dictated by U.S. electoral politics -- whether the triumph of the Democrats last month or the needs of Republican presidential hopefuls in 2008. It should depend on the military and political situation on the ground in Iraq.

U.S. troops should remain in that country, but only as long as the Iraqi government is willing and able to stay above the sectarian fray. Indeed, despite talk in Washington of troop reductions, a short-term increase in the number of U.S. troops may be necessary to help turn the tide on the streets of Baghdad and elsewhere in the country. U.S. troops may have to become even more involved in fighting the Sunni/Al Qaeda insurgency directly and in disarming Shiite militias. But they should only do so if the fledgling Iraqi government proves itself an ally committed to building a state that represents all Iraqi factions.

Iraq's commitment, and America's

That question -- what exactly is Iraq's government willing and able to do? -- provided the dramatic backdrop to last week's meeting in Jordan between President Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki. Bush's insistence that Maliki is the "right guy" to lead Iraq was belied by his own national security advisor, Stephen Hadley, who, in a memo leaked to the New York Times, wondered whether Maliki is simply too weak to crack down on the Shiite death squads run by his supporters, or whether he is unwilling to so do.

It's time to find out the answer. We don't know exactly what Bush told Maliki in private, but we hope he told him to clean up his Interior Ministry and to start arresting Shiite death squad leaders. U.S. forces might also execute -- or at least threaten to execute -- the outstanding arrest warrant on murder charges for Muqtada Sadr, who controls one of the largest Shiite militias and is now boycotting the government. Maliki needs to break with Sadr if he is to be a credible leader in the eyes of moderate Sunnis, and the U.S. needs to take on Sadr if it is to continue imploring neighboring Sunni nations to help bring stability to Iraq.

At the same time, U.S. forces must redouble their efforts to arrest the Sunni terrorists whose atrocities have so provoked the Shiites. Their leaders should be tried and punished; an end to impunity on both sides could help quell vigilantism and help erase the perception that U.S. forces are becoming bystanders to sectarian slaughter.

Security remains the necessary condition to the political development of a representative government, and an all-out civil war may soon make Iraqis yearn for the terrible old days of Saddam Hussein. Time is running out for the U.S. and Maliki to restore order.

Maliki has promised that Iraqi troops will be ready to take over from the U.S. within six months. Whether that's realistic or not, it's hard to imagine that the U.S. has any more time than that to improve matters. Bush needs to use the leverage gained by those 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq to pressure Sunnis and Shiites into peace.

Meanwhile, Bush could make the best use of the growing calls for withdrawal from Iraq to hint to Iran and Syria, very privately, that he might do just that. At the moment, Damascus and Tehran can afford to be spoilers, watching the U.S. bleed in Iraq while (so far) being spared the potentially chaotic consequences of a U.S. withdrawal. Suggestions that Saudi Arabia and Jordan might intervene to protect their Sunni brethren if an Iranian-backed Shiite Iraqi government were to rise in Baghdad, possibly triggering a regional conflagration, should give all sides pause.

These steps could bring pressure to bear on Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds to hammer out a new internal political compact that would keep Iraq intact but provide more local autonomy to deal with sectarian tensions. It would necessarily include a long-overdue deal to divide up the nation's oil wealth. Civil wars rarely end at the negotiating table until one side is defeated, or realizes it soon will be, or until stalemate or exhaustion sets in. That may also prove true in Iraq. But there is still time for the living to change history.

We recognize that none of this adds up to a tidy, satisfying road map; there are no easy exits from a quagmire. The quandary for Bush, in some senses ironic, is that the mission of removing Hussein and of turning the nation of Iraq over to its people has been accomplished -- but the outcome is still disastrous.

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