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Iraq without illusions

BY NOW it should be clear to Bush administration policymakers that their blunders in Iraq have led to the current situation in which US forces are unable to stamp out a quicksilver insurgency, parts of the country are slipping into a sectarian war between Sunni Arabs and Shi'ites, and the specter of a many-sided civil war looms over the future.

Most of Washington's mistakes originate in a failure to grasp -- or accept -- Iraqi realities that do not correspond to administration hopes or delusions. One consequence is that many Americans see no reason to continue sacrificing American lives in Iraq, as evidenced by this weekend's large antiwar protests.

To prevent the situation in Iraq from becoming even worse, President Bush and his advisers will have to adapt their military and political strategies to things as they really are.

This means recognizing that US forces lack the manpower, the knowledge of local tribes and factions in the Sunni Arab provinces, and the staying power to defeat the Ba'athists and jihadists waging a guerrilla war rooted in stealth, adaptability, and the survivability of scattered cells. As for the Bush plan to train an Iraqi army able to cope with the Sunni Arab guerrillas after US forces begin drawing down and redeploying next year, the reality is that the current Iraqi army is divided into distinct Shi'ite, Kurd, and Sunni Arab battalions. Only one of those 115 battalions includes elements from all three communities.

Washington needs to recognize the distrust among those communities. Much of the centrifugal force impelling Kurds, Shi'ites, and Sunni Arabs away from one another originates in the horrors of Saddam Hussein's dictatorship. Although many Iraqis might like to retrieve an Iraqi national identity, building on the tolerance and assimilation that predate Saddam's rule, any such retrieval of Iraqihood will have to wait for a time when Sunni bombs are no longer exploding among Shi'ites.

In the near term, Shi'ite soldiers and police will have to defend Shi'ites, the Kurdish pesh merga militia will have to protect the Kurdish north, and Sunni Arab forces will have to be created to fight the Ba'athist and Islamist guerrilla factions in the four primarily Sunni Arab provinces. They will be better able to end the so-called insurgency than the Americans. But first, Sunni Arabs need to accept the reality that Iraq is no longer theirs to rule and that the Ba'athist massacres that still haunt Kurds and Shi'ites really did happen.

If the disparate religious and ethnic groups of Iraq are to come together one day, they must first be allowed to govern and defend themselves in their own provinces. The constitution they have drafted recognizes this reality; the sooner the Americans accept it, the sooner they can end their skein of errors.

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