Future tragedies are unavoidable in troubled Iraq

Editorial

A s fighting spreads to at least four cities in Iraq where insurgents of various kinds are violently challenging U.S. military occupation, the disheartening fact is becoming more apparent: Most of the choices available to the United States are among deeply unattractive and unpromising options.
The barbarous treatment of four dead Americans last week in Fallujah seems to have let loose at least some of the dogs of war. But in some ways recent events have only brought to the surface problems that have always been present.
Start with the immediate U.S. response. American forces have little choice but to respond militarily to the mutilations and to the provocations from radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, explained Marina Ottaway, a senior scholar in the Democracy and Rule of Law Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
This military response, however, will mean more dead Iraqi civilians, including, inevitably, some who are innocent of any insurgent sympathies. Each of them will have family members, many of whom will vow revenge against the occupying forces. Over the long run, while the immediate military response may be needed, it will not furnish a solution that leads to peace or even to relative security.
Thus the problem that plagues any occupying army, no matter how benign its intentions: Eventually resentment will lead to incidents and dealing with these events, by killing or rounding up the perpetrators, will lead to more resentment. Passiveness in the face of provocation, of course, is a choice fraught with problems. But so is a forceful response, no matter how measured.
Such dilemmas on the tactical level mirror conundrums on the larger political level. In view of the recent violence, should the United States re-evaluate the June 30 deadline to select an interim government, fearing that turning over partial sovereignty to a governmental entity unprepared to assume full responsibility or maintain security will mean more chaos? Or would that be interpreted as an imperial desire to maintain control, feeding paranoid fantasies among certain Iraqis?
“The situation is changing so quickly,” Ottaway said, “that I can’t tell whether sticking to the June 30 deadline will be interpreted as a sign of strength — sticking with the plan — or weakness.”
It may be too late to reconfigure the American commitment sufficiently to avoid future tragedies. But it is important to remember, at least for future reference, that this array of bad choices flowed rather predictably — in general if not in complete detail — from the original dubious choice: to invade a country that, while it certainly was governed cruelly, did not pose an imminent threat to the United States or to its neighbors.