The Endgame in Iraq

Editorial

New York Times

April 2, 2006

Iraq is becoming a country that America should be ashamed to support, let alone occupy. The nation as a whole is sliding closer to open civil war. In its capital, thugs kidnap and torture innocent civilians with impunity, then murder them for their religious beliefs. The rights of women are evaporating. The head of the government is the ally of a radical anti-American cleric who leads a powerful private militia that is behind much of the sectarian terror.

The Bush administration will not acknowledge the desperate situation. But it is, at least, pushing in the right direction, trying to mobilize all possible leverage in a frantic effort to persuade the leading Shiite parties to embrace more inclusive policies and support a broad-based national government.

One vital goal is to persuade the Shiites to abort their disastrous nomination of Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari. Mr. Jaafari is unable to form a broadly inclusive government and has made no serious effort to rein in police death squads. Even some Shiite leaders are now calling on him to step aside. If his nomination stands and is confirmed by Parliament, civil war will become much harder to head off. And from the American perspective, the Iraqi government will have become something that no parent should be asked to risk a soldier son or daughter to protect.

Unfortunately, after three years of policy blunders in Iraq, Washington may no longer have the political or military capital to prevail. That may be hard for Americans to understand, since it was the United States invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein and helped the Shiite majority to power. Some 140,000 American troops remain in Iraq, more than 2,000 American servicemen and servicewomen have died there so far and hundreds of billions of American dollars have been spent.

Yet Shiite leaders have responded to Washington's pleas for inclusiveness with bristling hostility, personally vilifying Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and criticizing American military operations in the kind of harsh language previously heard only from Sunni leaders. Meanwhile, Moktada al-Sadr, the radically anti-American cleric and militia leader, has maneuvered himself into the position of kingmaker by providing decisive support for Mr. Jaafari's candidacy to remain prime minister.

It was chilling to read Edward Wong's interview with the Iraqi prime minister in The Times last week, during which Mr. Jaafari sat in the palace where he now makes his home, complained about the Americans and predicted that the sectarian militias that are currently terrorizing Iraqi civilians could be incorporated into the army and police. The stories about innocent homeowners and storekeepers who are dragged from their screaming families and killed by those same militias are heartbreaking, as is the thought that the United States, in its hubris, helped bring all this to pass.

It is conceivable that the situation can still be turned around. Mr. Khalilzad should not back off. The kind of broadly inclusive government he is trying to bring about offers the only hope that Iraq can make a successful transition from the terrible mess it is in now to the democracy that we all hoped would emerge after Saddam Hussein's downfall. It is also the only way to redeem the blood that has been shed by Americans and Iraqis alike.