Sunday, September 24, 2006

NY Times Editorial: Facing Facts on Iraq

9/24/06

While Iraq is a central issue in this year’s election campaigns, there is very little clear talk about what to do, beyond vague recommendations for staying the course or long-term timetables for withdrawal. That is because politicians running for election want to deliver good news, and there is nothing about Iraq — including withdrawal scenarios — that is anything but ominous.

In the real Iraq, armed Shiite and Kurdish parties have divided up the eastern two-thirds of the country, leaving Sunni insurgents and American marines to fight over the rest. Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki and his “national unity cabinet” stretch out their arms to like-thinking allies like Iran and Hezbollah, but barely lift a finger to rein in the sectarian militias and death squads spreading terror across Baghdad and the Shiite south.

The civilian death toll is now running at roughly 100 a day, with many of the victims gruesomely tortured with power tools or acid. Over the summer, more Iraqi civilians died violent deaths each month than the number of Americans lost to terrorism on Sept. 11. Meanwhile, the electricity remains off, oil production depressed, unemployment pervasive and basic services hard to find.

Iraq is today a broken, war-torn country. Outside the relatively stable Kurdish northeast, virtually every family — Sunni or Shiite, rich or poor, powerful or powerless — must cope with fear and physical insecurity on an almost daily basis. The courts, when they function at all, are subject to political interference; street-corner justice is filling the vacuum. Religious courts are asserting their power over family life. Women’s rights are in retreat.

Growing violence, not growing democracy, is the dominant feature of Iraqi life. Every Iraqi knows this. Americans need to know it too.

Beyond the futility of simply staying the course lies the impossibility of keeping the bulk of American ground forces stationed in Iraq indefinitely. They have already been there for 42 months, longer than it took the United States to defeat Hitler. The strain is undermining the long-term strength of the Army and Marines, threatening to divert the National Guard from homeland security and emboldening Iran and North Korea. Yet with the military situation deteriorating, the Pentagon has had to give up any idea of significant withdrawals this year, or for that matter anytime in the foreseeable future.

If there is still a constructive way out of this disaster, it has to begin with some truth-telling. Politicians are not going to press for serious solutions when their constituents have not been prepared to understand what the real options are. Republicans will not talk about genuine alternatives as long as their supporters have been primed to believe victory is possible. Few Democrats will advocate anything that might wind up transferring responsibility for this awful mess to them.

Acknowledging the hard facts of today’s Iraq must be more than a political talking point for the president’s opponents. It is the only possible beginning to a serious national discussion about what kind of American policy has the best chance of retrieving whatever can still be retrieved in Iraq and minimizing the damage to wider American interests.

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