Unhappy Anniversary

Baghdad, March 19, 2007: This is an anniversary that is only going to be commemorated by those who despise it. The war will conclude its fourth year today or tomorrow, depending how you count; U.S. bombing began on the night of March 19, and the ground invasion pushed off on March 20, 2003. A host of antiwar groups arranged a long weekend of rallies and protests and commemorative events throughout the United States. They were lightly attended by Vietnam War standards, as they have been in previous years. There were marches in many European capitals, somewhat better attended, but still small -- not because opposition to the war isn't widespread; Europeans by even greater majorities than Americans now oppose the war. There was almost no commemoration in the Arab capitals of Iraq's neighbors, where antiwar feeling is even stronger; the adventure in Iraq has yet to do much to make the region anything but less safe for democracy and its trappings. And in Iraq, the government and the U.S. military authorities did their best to ignore the moment entirely.

Obviously, that wasn't possible, as the bombings continued to take their vicious toll. An explosion at a Shiite mosque in Baghdad killed at least eight worshipers today, while a series of car bombs killed 12 in the oil-rich city of Kirkuk in northern Iraq, police said. On Saturday, Sunni extremists, almost certainly Al Qaeda terrorists, set off a coordinated series of three suicide truck bombs, each loaded with chlorine, which the explosions expelled in the form of poisonous chlorine gas. And Sunday was one of the worst days yet in the Baghdad security plan, as seven U.S. service members were killed in separate incidents.

Still, the U.S. military line is hardly surprising. After the promises back in 2003 that we'd be out by the end of that year, it's embarrassing to be embarking on the fifth year, with a sixth one heaving into view already. Asked last week what commemoration the military might make, U.S. coalition spokesman Maj. Gen. William Caldwell IV seemed slightly caught off balance. "There's nothing special. We obviously have a focus right now on supporting Operation Farhad al Qanoon (the Baghdad Security Plan), and making that successful", he said. "And, of course, the ongoing operations across the country to support our [Iraqi] counterparts."

Transposed onto a Vietnam War timeline, it's already early 1968. Yet the Iraq antiwar movement has never gained a lot of traction, even while winning over much larger numbers of converts among the public at large than the antiwar movement did around Vietnam. The problem is that the conundrum in Iraq does not lend itself to black-and-white solutions like "Out Now," something few people in Iraq want, and few people in the neighboring countries can even imagine. However wrong one feels it was to have launched the war, leaving Iraq precipitously now would unleash an all-out civil war that would be far worse than anything we've seen so far, and one that would likely drag in many of the neighbors, with devastating consequences for the entire world.


Even in Iraq, the Sunni minority that nourishes the insurgency and despises the United States, nevertheless still hopes to see American forces remain for a long time. U.S. forces are ultimately the guarantors that there won't be a bloodbath, in which Sunnis would supply most of the blood. Even Shia leader Moqtada al Sadr's political supporters, devoted to the rhetoric of an immediate American withdrawal, when pressed, will talk about a phased withdrawal on a timetable of some years--a realpolitik position made necessary by their support for the Shia-led government in Iraq. Even Iraqi insurgents don't really want the Americans out immediately, because wholesale slaughter of their Sunni base is the one thing that could really stop them cold and they know it. "Out Now" is a sentiment confined to the most extreme of terrorists, Al Qaeda, who want it precisely because they want that bloodbath, as they've openly said, in hopes of provoking a worldwide conflagration from which, in their deluded imaginings, an Islamic caliphate shall emerge victorious.

So we're stuck with the Iraq war, like the wife we love and hate at the same time: we can't live with her, and we can't live without her. We're damned if we stay, and damned if we don't.