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Deep in the bowels of the Pentagon, military professionals privately admit what the Bush Administration publicly fails to recognize – the United States veers dangerously on the precipice of its worst wartime embarrassment since Vietnam as Iraq plunges into an irreversible civil war.
"The civil war has started and the U.S. planners had better get used to it," says retired Marine and military affairs expert H. Thomas Hayden, now a writer for Military.Com. "Shiites have always planned to align themselves with Iran but the Pentagon dominated planners in the Administration have never understood the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite and the great religious gulf between them that has existed for almost a thousand years."
Jeremy Bowen, Middle East editor for the British Broadcasting Corporation, agrees.
"The destruction of the al-Askari shrine takes the danger of a civil war in Iraq to a new level," Bowen says. "It has produced bigger protests than the killing of humans."
Pentagon professionals have long warned President Bush that if civil war erupts in Iraq the U.S. will have to admit failure in its efforts to create a stable, democratic government. As he has with most warnings from those who fight wars for a living, Bush ignored the advice.
"The issue hangs on the next few days. Either the gates of hell open onto a civil war or the Shi’ites will take more power with the excuse that Sunni leaders are unable to rein in increasing terrorist activity," says Hazim al-Naimi, a political science professor at Mustansiriya University. "Only the U.S. military is preventing war in some areas. In cities like Mosul, the police would be thrown out in days if the U.S. military left. There would be ethnic cleansing."
While American military officials publicly follow the Bush administration’s lead in painting a rosier picture than really exists in Iraq, my Pentagon sources tell me the military pros are in private revolt against the White House and say the U.S. faces a "humiliating defeat."
"We are facing a major conspiracy that is targeting Iraq’s unity," said President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd. "We should all stand hand in hand to prevent the danger of a civil war."
Even worse, those who take a realistic view of what is happening in Iraq see the U.S. effort there as a massive failure.
"The United States has not been very helpful," says Thabit Abdullah, a Baghdad native and associate professor of history at York University in Toronto. "I must tell you that I was one of those who rejoiced at the overthrow of the dictatorship, though I was like the majority of Iraqis, extremely suspicious of U.S. intentions. I believe that the U.S. has missed one opportunity after another to play a positive role: the lack of effective security, the Abu Ghraib scandals, the joke that is the reconstruction — one disaster after another."
Still, the Bush Administration claims the situation is not as bad as it is.
State Department Deputy Spokesman Adam Ereli claims "significant progress has been made toward building a democratic government."
"There are some savage and unprincipled elements out there that are going to stop at nothing, including attacking one of Shi’a Islam’s holiest shrines to promote the kind of unrest that the great majority of Iraqis have clearly demonstrated they don’t want to see," he said. "I don’t call that civil war, I call that attempts to undermine understanding and an emerging compact among Iraqi society for a peaceful political future."
But look beyond the administration’s talking points and you find the sad truth that the country that claims to be the greatest military power on earth cannot stop these "savage and unprincipled elements" from plunging Iraq into the kind of civil war that will force the U.S. to either hunker down in Iraq for a Vietnam-style, prolonged conflict or withdraw from the region in humiliating defeat.
Either choice is a monumental failure.