When I visited Baghdad in March, there was no civil war. There is no civil war in Iraq today. But it's beginning to look as if there might be one tomorrow.
Something vital has changed. In Baghdad.
For three years, the violence was about political power in post-Saddam Iraq. Sunni Arab insurgents and Shia militias may have been on opposite sides, but the conflict was only a religious war for the foreign terrorists. And the fighting wasn't between the masses of Sunnis and Shias - who were the victims of all sides.
Now it's different. The unwillingness of the Iraqi government to take on the sectarian death squads slaughtering civilians is polarizing Iraq (while the Kurds build up their own peaceful slice of the country as fast as they can).
Political violence with a religious undertone is becoming outright religious violence. The difference is crucial. The earlier fighting was over who should govern. Increasingly, it's about who should define Allah's will on earth. Nothing could be more ominous.
Political struggles may be resolved through compromise. Historically, only immense bloodletting and the exhaustion of one side or both leads to even a bitter, temporary peace in religious conflicts.
Leaders may bargain over who runs the ministry of health, but they won't horse-trade over conflicting visions of the divine. When men believe they hear a command from their god, they go deaf to other voices.
Instead of working aggressively toward a solution, key elements within the Iraqi government have become part of the problem. Responsible for the police and public order, the Interior Ministry has failed utterly. Instead of behaving impartially, Shia-dominated police units provide death squads to retaliate against Sunni insurgents. As a result, more Sunnis back the insurgents in self-defense. More Shias die. More Sunnis die. The downward spiral accelerates.
This is bad news for our troops in Iraq. For the first time, we may face a problem we have no hope of fixing. We can defeat the terrorists. We can defeat a political insurgency. But when our forces find themselves caught between two religious factions, the only hope is to pick a side and stick to it, despite the atrocities it inevitably will commit.
We're not ready for that, psychologically or morally. Yet. We'll try to be honest brokers. But men on a violent mission from God have no respect for mediators.
We helped make this mess. Instead of relentlessly destroying terrorists and insurgents, we tried to wage war gently to please the media. We always let the bad guys off the ropes - and apologized when they showed the press their rope burns. We passed up repeated chances to kill Moqtada al-Sadr and break his Mahdi Army militia. We did what was easiest in the short term, not what was essential for the long term.
Now the only way to avoid an outright civil war is for our troops and the Iraqi army to break the sectarian militias in a head-on fight. The media will howl and we'll see a spike in American casualties. But it's our own fault. We put off going to the dentist until the tooth rotted. Now it's going to hurt.
The alternative would be to let Iraq fail. And we need to ponder that possibility honestly. While it's far too early to give up, we need to "think the unthinkable." We can force the Iraqis to do many things, but we can't force them to succeed. If the jealousy, corruption and partisanship in the Iraqi government prevent the country's leaders from dealing forcefully with Iraq problems, we should no longer sacrifice our troops.
Here's the brutal reality: If Iraq is destined to become yet another monument to Arab failure, there could be far worse outcomes than a bloody civil war - as long as our troops are out of it. We should be drawing up contingency plans to move a reinforced division and adequate airpower to the Kurdish provinces in the north, to withdraw the remainder of our forces to the south, and then to let Iraq's Sunni Arabs and Shias go at it.
Yes, Iran and Syria would be drawn in, through proxies or directly. Not necessarily a bad result, to be frank. At present, Iran and Syria ally against us. An Iraqi civil war would drag them into a military confrontation. Bad news for Hezbollah, not for us.
Let's raise another "impossible" issue: If the Arab world can't sustain one rule-of-law democracy - after we gave Iraq a unique opportunity - might it be a useful strategic outcome to watch Arabs and Persians, Shia and Sunni, slaughtering each other again? Just don't try to referee the death match.
Meanwhile, our troops are doing all they can - and our cause remains just and good. Iraq could still succeed. It's too early to walk away.
But the Iraqis have to get their act together. We can't keep the training wheels on the bicycle forever. If they won't unite to fight for their own country, we'll have to accept that our noble effort failed.
We should never publicize a timetable for a troop withdrawal, but here's what President Bush should have told Iraq's prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, yesterday: "You are failing your country. We'll give you six months. If your government can't produce a unified response to sectarian violence that treats all sides impartially, we'll withdraw our troops and our support. Then you can fight it out among yourselves."
Failure in Iraq would be a victory for terror. In the short run. But the terrorists might then find themselves mired in a long and crippling struggle. An Iraqi civil war might become al Qaeda's Vietnam, not ours.
One other thing our president should tell Iraq's top leaders: "If you fail your country, the United States will be embarrassed. But we'll remain the greatest power on earth. Few, if any, of you will survive the catastrophe you brought upon your people."
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