Less than a year ago, Vice President Cheney remarked that the Iraqi insurgency was in its “last throes.” He may have been right. In the intervening months, the conflict there has transformed from mere random violence to the brink of a full-blown civil war. What happens when Iraq passes the tipping point? Whose side will we be on in the impending conflict? Or will we “cut and run”, leaving a bigger mess than we found?

The trigger for the recent violence was the bombing of the Shiite shrine at Samarra on February 22nd. This attack, presumably carried out by Sunnis trying to foment sectarian violence, lead to days of protests and riots that killed over 200 civilians. Reprisal killings of journalists, professionals, and government officials have claimed at least 1,000 in the last two months. These are throes all right, but far from the last.

A generally accepted social science definition of civil war is: “Sustained military combat, primarily internal, resulting in at least 1,000 battle-deaths per year, pitting central government forces against an insurgent force capable of effective resistance…” (Henderson and Singer, “Civil War in the Post-Colonial World, 1946-92,” Journal of Peace Research, May 2000). Iraq fits every clause of this definition. While there are foreign fighters, the majority of the violence is perpetrated by Iraqis against Iraqis. We cannot blame this violence on Iran, or Syria, or al-Qaeda, only ourselves. Prime Minister Iyad Allawi notes that “We are losing each day as an average 50 to 60 people throughout the country, if not more.” This is a significant increase over the baseline rate of about 30 Iraqi military casualties per day during 2004 (Department of Defense, “Measuring Stability and Security in Iraq,” 17 February 2006, p27). The insurgent force is clearly capable of offensive actions against the government, and they have infiltrated the Iraqi security apparatus so thoroughly that they are often aware of American counter-attacks as soon as the order is issued to move.

Why is the Bush administration trying so hard to maintain the aura of control over this rapidly disintegrating situation? Because the moment it becomes clear that this is indeed a civil war, our mission to promote democracy becomes null and void. When democracy fails to take root, and protracted sectarian violence takes hold, American and allied public support for an winnable war will plummet. Spending blood and treasure to fight a civil war is not quite the mission we signed up for.

Sadly, because we started this conflagration, we bear the responsibility for what happens when, not if, we leave. While a permanent American presence in Iraq is being built and planned for, it is not our long term goal to patrol the streets. A friendly Iraq was supposed to be a check against Iran, and a beacon of liberty in a region darkened by autocracy. An Iraq mired in civil war doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in the righteousness of the American way.

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell stated this dilemma as the “Pottery Barn Rule”: You break it, you buy it. We certainly broke this vase, but do we have the skill or wherewithal to fix it? In the coming Iraqi civil war, whose side will we be on? We have placed our faith so far in the Shia, but do we dare trust the young rebel cleric Moqtada al-Sadr? His Mahdi Army was responsible for the uprisings of August 2004 and our subsequent siege of Fallujah. Or perhaps the ruling Sciri party (Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution In Iraq), which was founded in the intellectual heritage of Ayatollah Khomeini, the leader of the Iranian Islamic Revolution of 1979. This is the party of the current Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, who is currently in the process of being forced out by Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice. Under his leadership, the Parliament has failed to form a government for the last three months. Remember that election in Janurary? They still haven’t actually formed a coalition. Could we back the Kurds, who we helped save from Saddam with our Northern No-Fly Zone during the inter-war containment? But they are now self sufficient, with their own private army, the Pershmerga. If they can control Kirkuk, and its oil wealth, they have no need for a united Federal Iraq. An independent Kurdistan would infuriate the Turks, who continue to repress their eastern Kurdish minority.

Clearly none of our putative allies are convincing champions of democracy, and we have no horse to back in this race. Even if you’re not up on your Iraqi politics, there’s no denying that the situation looks abysmal. Every ethnic group has their own agenda, and none are entirely friendly to the United States. Even if we were to choose a side, no one wants to be on ours.

As Iraq slowly crumbles, we will continue to pass the buck. In the eyes of the Bush administration, it’s the Iraqi’s fault that they couldn’t create a modern society out of the wreckage Saddam left them. Never mind that we never gave them the security or the support they needed, or that the one crucial decision of disbanding the Iraqi army essentially created the insurgency.

Leaving Iraq in a civil war will have profound repercussions in the region, none of them good. Iran may exert it’s influence more directly, creating another state ruled by sharia. Turkey may invade to stop the creation of a Kurdish state. And Israel won’t be happy about yet another unfriendly pocket of violence in their neighborhood.

We have failed the Iraqi people. When we pull out and leave them with a country in pieces, perhaps even worse than before the our ill-planned invasion, we will have only ourselves to blame.

Published in the April 7, 2006 edition of The Tech.