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Staring into the Abyss of Iraq’s Future

Sadr's militia in Basra 

Atrios linked to this article yesterday, but by skipping to its conclusion he cut short Newsweek columnist Christopher Dickey's all-too-realistic take on the hard truths the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group ignored in its recently released report:

Every day we move closer to the edge of a humanitarian abyss. Think the Balkans, Rwanda or Darfur, but with this grim difference: the United States won’t be able to stand back from the slaughter and wring its hands in Iraq. It is implicated up to its elbows already, and there’s more to come. Attempts to hold Iraq together by political compromise have failed. If the Americans stay there in any way, shape or form, they’re going to have to choose sides, backing Iraqi “friends” who will do whatever they think is necessary to impose order.

That was the not-so-coded message from the leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, shortly after he met with President Bush in the White House on Monday. (Yes, you read the name of his organization right. Hakim’s goal is quite explicitly “the Islamic Revolution in Iraq,” but, hey, America finds its friends where it can in Baghdad these days.)

. . . It’s obvious to Hakim that to prevent a civil war, you wipe out the present and potential combatants on the other side. He labels those as Al Qaeda (a small group, despite its penchant for spectacular terror), Takfiris and Baathists, which could mean a very wide range of Sunnis. . . .

 . . . Anyone who sifts the platitudes of this Islamic revolutionary can see his vision of Iraq’s democratic future is for rule by a Shiite majority that answers to clerical guidance. Uninvited (meaning Jordanian, Turkish, Kuwaiti, Syrian or Saudi) outsiders will be excluded while security cooperation with friends—meaning Iran—is encouraged. Hakim says his organization is legal, and its militias have been integrated into (others would say taken over) government units. Illegal militias, as defined in an order signed by U.S. proconsul Paul Bremer shortly before he left Iraq in 2004, are to be done away with.

That would include especially those of Hakim’s rival warlord, Moqtada al-Sadr. As a Hakim supporter in the government told me privately the other day, "Moqtada should be behind bars, underground or across the border—those are the three options he has—and a fourth one is for him to behave. The U.S. doesn't need to tackle him. They don't need to do the dirty work. We will do the dirty work. They should stay over the horizon."

. . . The essential point is that Iraqis on all sides of the divide think they know precisely what an effective counterinsurgency campaign looks like, and it’s not the relatively fastidious one the U.S. would have them wage. “The Iraqis under Saddam [Hussein] were world champions at counterinsurgency,” notes [military historian Martin] Van Creveld. The former dictator has been standing trial, and already has received one death sentence, for doing what he thought needed to be done to crush rebellions by Shiites and Kurds—and it worked. Now the United States has turned the tables, the former victims don’t want to be held back. “Maybe they are not trained in the American sense, but they are very well trained to do what they have to do in Iraq,” said Van Creveld.

And if you don't believe Van Creveld, just drop by the morque in Baghdad and ask to see some of the bodies with drill holes in them.  The sad fact is that when the ISG described the situation in Iraq as "grave and deteriorating," they were being Pollyannas.

Dickey concludes:

The sad fact is that insurgencies are defeated only rarely, and then by imposing the peace of the grave on hundreds of thousands if not millions of people. How much more can Washington let itself be implicated in such carnage? How far over the horizon do American troops need to pull back to escape the stench of such a victory? One answer: all the way home.

Here, I think Dickey is being a Pollyanna as well.  Even if all American troops were withdrawn tomorrow, we wouldn't escape responsibility for the nightmare our country set in motion.  Even worse, as Joe Wilson expressed with pained eloquence earlier this week, a complete U.S. abdication of responsibility would invite neighboring countries who find a Shiite government unacceptable to step into the vacuum we've left, leading Iran to escalate its own involvement — and suddenly one country's hellish civil war could turn into a regional firestorm.

But how can the U.S. military hold off that catastrophe, when staying in Iraq — not only sacrificing American lives, but contributing to the carnage — is just as morally reprehensible as abandoning Iraq and its neighbors to their fate?  Asking the question directly explains why the Baker boys chose not to try answering it.

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Swopa has been sharing prescient, if somewhat anal-retentive, analysis and garden-variety mockery with Internet readers since 1995 or so, when he began debunking the fantasies of Clinton-scandal aficionados on Usenet. He is currently esconced as the primary poster at Needlenose (