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Facing facts in Iraq

THERE ARE four ever widening gaps that are threatening a successful outcome of George W. Bush's war in Iraq. The first is between what Sunnis, Shi'ites, and Kurds want for Iraq's future, especially in the all-important matter of Sunni inclusion. Sunnis are under-represented in the Iraqi government because many boycotted the January elections. But the only hope for ending their blood-soaked insurrection is to bring them fully into the political process. The length of time it has taken to reach any compromise is discouraging.

Given the large number of Sunni-led attacks against Shia targets, the emerging Shia-led attacks against Sunnis, and the extralegal abductions of Arabs by Kurdish authorities in Kirkut, one has to wonder whether the long-feared Iraqi civil war hasn't already begun.

The hard truth is that most Iraqis feel more loyalty to their tribes, their ethnicities, and their confessions than they do to the concept of Iraq as an undivided nation, and that is not about to change any time soon.

The second gap is between what all of the above want and what the United States would like to see in Iraq. The most stunning defeat for the Bush administration's dreams came earlier this month when newly elected Iraqi leaders rebuffed American pressure to disband ethnic and religion-based militias. Democracy can function only if sectarian and tribal interests are subordinated into the whole. The state must have a monopoly on coercive power. But Iraqi leaders chose to keep their special-interest militias, demonstrating that the kind of trust and power-sharing necessary for a democracy is a long way away. As one member of Congress, who has visited Iraq often, says: The best we can hope for is a ''participatory republic. It won't be a democracy."

The third is the growing gap between the Bush administration and the American people. For the first time, according to a Washington Post-ABC poll, more than half of Americans don't feel that the Iraq war has made them safer. The truth is that the Iraq war has made them decidedly less safe, distracting us from the real war on Islamic extremism and creating a magnet for Jihadi fanatics. According to a Gallup poll, 57 percent now say Iraq was not worth invading.

Support in Congress is also weakening. A prowar Republican, Representative Walter Jones of North Carolina, the very man who wanted to change the name of french fries to freedom fries to protest French opposition to the war, is now introducing a bipartisan House resolution calling for an exit strategy. And Democratic Senator Joseph Biden, who has been critical of how the war has been handled but is for staying the course, said recently: ''I'm not sure I could in good faith, a year from now, if things aren't drastically different, continue to support American forces being in Iraq."

But the largest gap of all is the reality gap between what the Bush administration says and what is really happening on the ground in Iraq. Vice President Cheney, against all evidence to the contrary, famously said that the insurgency is in its ''last throes." To this Biden says: Go see for yourself.

Washington says it has enough troops in Iraq, but battle commanders on the ground are saying privately they need more men.

A former Pentagon official, journalist, and president of the Council on Foreign Relations, Leslie Gelb, a man with considerable political and military knowledge, came back from a fact-finding trip in Iraq talking about the ''gap between those who work there, who were really careful of every word they uttered of prediction or analysis, and the expansive, sometimes, I think, totally unrealistic optimism you hear from people back in Washington."

In a report to the council, Gelb was scathing about America efforts to train an Iraqi army. ''If you ask any Iraqi leader, they will tell you these people can't fight. They just aren't trained. And yet we're cranking them out like rabbits." As for plans to train a 10 division Iraqi army by next year, Gelb was scathing. ''It became very apparent to me that these 10 divisions were to fight some future war against Iran. It had nothing to do, nothing to do," with taking Iraq over from the Americans and fighting the insurgents.

Americans have statistics for everything in Iraq, yet little of it reflects reality. ''The information seeps in, and you wonder" about its reliability," Gelb said. " You wonder if you really know what's going on, because essentially what you have are the statistics. It reminds me so of the Vietnam days."

H.D.S. Greenway's column appears regularly in the Globe.

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