Get IRAQ's Civil War over with 

Two options: more occupation + more civil war, civil war

NEW YORK--If we pull out now, warn Bush's generals, Iraq will disintegrate into civil war. Experts counter that the civil war is already under way, and that what would follow a U.S. withdrawal would be even worse.

"All indications point to a current state of civil war and the disintegration of the Iraqi state [if the U.S. leaves]," says Nawaf Obaid of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"We're not talking about just a full-scale civil war" after a U.S. withdrawal, adds Joost Hiltermann, Middle East project director for the International Crisis Group. "This would be a failed-state situation with fighting among various groups" growing into regional conflict.

Think of the ferocious fighting that broke out after the Soviets left Afghanistan.

Neighboring countries--Iran, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Pakistan--prolonged the bloodshed and destruction by arming proxy warlords. The Afghan civil war slowed to a simmer after the Taliban consolidated their harsh rule over most of the country. Hiltermann describes a similar grim scenario. "The war will be over Iraq, over its dead body," he says. "Regional war is very much a possibility." The winners will probably be the Shias, who will crush the Sunnis and transform Iraq into an Islamist state aligned with, but more radical than, Iran.

At least one of Iraq's neighbors agrees. "When the ethnic-religious break occurs in one country, it will not fail to occur elsewhere, too," Syrian President Bashar al-Assad warned recently. "It would be as it was at the end of the Soviet Union, only much worse. Large wars, small wars--no one will be able to get a grip on the consequences."

With so much at stake in the war against Iraq, argues Arizona Senator John McCain, we ought to be sending more troops, not pulling them out. He agrees with Pentagon planners, who want to add 25,000 or 30,000 troops to the 140,000 already there.

"The consequences of failure are so severe that I will exhaust every possibility to try to fix this situation," McCain says. "It's not just Iraq that they're interested in. It's the region, and then us."

Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institute describes the Pentagon's thinking about troop strength: "You ramp up in 2007 and then ramp it down to below 100,000 to maybe 60,000 or 70,000 in 2008, but we cannot go higher. We don't have a big enough military."

But then what?

The United States has two options in Iraq. First: It can pull out now, which will almost certainly lead to civil war along sectarian and tribal lines, and possibly to a wider regional conflict. Second: it can pull out later--and deal with the same exact consequences then.

Invading Iraq was the kind of idea that is so bad that, once it's acted upon, nothing can be done to redeem it. One of my prewar worries was that there were no viable, well-known and popular opposition figures ready to replace Saddam Hussein. The dictator had suppressed the Kurds, Shias and non-Baath-aligned Sunnis for decades; each would want to run the country after he was removed. "Iraq has a one-man thugocracy," wrote the neoconservative historian Robert Kaplan five months before the war in November 2002, "so the removal of Saddam would threaten to disintegrate the entire ethnically riven country if we weren't to act fast and pragmatically install people who could actually govern."

That didn't happen. In all fairness, given Ahmed Chalabi and the other ridiculous Iraqi exiles Washington had to work with, it never could have. Once Bush decided to get rid of Saddam, civil war became inevitable. The U.S. accelerated the balkanization of Iraq by recognizing the nascent state of Kurdistan and sanctifying the ratification of a constitution that enshrines sectarian divisions in the form of privileges and semiautonomous fiefdoms under a virtually powerless federal government.

It's cold-blooded calculus, but where's the advantage in staving off the inevitable? Perhaps Iraq is destined to set the Middle East ablaze, or to collapse into a failed state like Somalia, or to disintegrate into partition and ethnic cleansing like Yugoslavia. It is likely that, after we pull out, a lot of people are going to die. Does it matter if they die now rather than 2008?

Holding back the deluge, after all, doesn't come cheap. The CISS calculates that "between 2 percent and 5 percent of Iraq's 27 million people have been killed, wounded or uprooted since the Americans invaded in 2003." Immediate withdrawal offers one clear advantage over "ramping up and ramping down": it would end an occupation that will kill 1,000 American troops and 200,000 Iraqis each year that it continues.

Long or short, the bloodletting of an Iraqi civil war is coming. Unlike the bloodletting of our current occupation, however, it will eventually end.

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