02/28/2006 05:06 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Nile in Iraq?

Whoops! I meant, "Denial in Iraq". The denial in question is why most of the US media and the Bush Administration persist in refusing to accept the reality of the civil war already well underway in Iraq? What do we need in order to be convinced? Guys wearing blue and butternut squaring off in an apple orchard in Gettysburg?

Before plunging further into this topic I recommend you take a look at Pat Lang's interview by the Council on Foreign Relations. Pat's basic point is that there is a political process underway in Iraq that consists of the Shias consolidating their power. This process is neither peaceful nor benign. There is a war underway, but many Americans simply do not want to admit to the reality on the ground.

What is the opposite of a civil war? For starters, how about a government that even the political and ethnic opponents accept as legitimate. But, sadly, that does not exist in Iraq. It has been more than two months since the last election in Iraq and the various "parties" cannot form a functioning government.

Another indicator of the "anti-civil war" is the ability of a Government to protect and defend its people.

The current Iraqi authorities have failed miserably on this point. I don't fault the current incarnation of what passes for an Iraqi Government for its failure to prevent last week's bombing of a Shia shrine in Samarra. But, does it have the ability to govern, to provide for the common defense, and to ensure public order? So far the answer is no.

The test for Iraq is to demonstrate it can find the culprits, arrest them in accordance with established national law and put them on trial. If a country does not have a viable, functioning police and judicial system capable of finding and punishing criminals responsible for hideous acts of violence then it must rely on martial law and brute force. When a Government suspends normal constitutional and legal protections because of a threat it is at war. When that threat is internal it is by definition a civil war.

Even on the issue of brute force there is no such thing in Iraq as a national military or police authority. The functioning security forces are sectarian in nature and respond primarily to local clerics and tribal chiefs. Maybe the day will come when Iraq has effective national security and judicial institutions, but that is not the current reality.

The Shia in Iraq hold the cards and the most powerful Shia are religious rather than secular leaders. The Ali Sistani's and Moqtada al Sadr's understand this basic truth. They have the power to mobilize millions and have the added advantage that most of the Army and Police are Shia who are being trained by the United States' military. They are not willing to accept a genuine power sharing arrangement with the Sunni minority. The secular Shia and Sunni who are willing to work with US authorities do not have broad political constituencies and, most importantly, do not control militia or military forces.

The fundamental challenge for any government is to control its territory and exercise a monopoly on the use of force. When a government is confronted by persistent, widespread attacks and is unable to quash them then a civil war exists. The group or groups that oppose a government and are willing to attack its security forces, its economic infrastructure, and its civilians are the agents of this war.

The war does not have to engulf most of Iraq. We should remember that our own Civil War was confined primarily to the South. The vast majority of the Northern States were not battlegrounds but did provide soldiers to fight the war. The average American during our Civil War did not have to wake up each morning wondering if they would be bombed while going to the market or to church.

What is now painfully clear is that the Shia are making great strides in consolidating their power in Iraq. The violence in most of Iraq will probably abate over the next year but at a cost of ethnic cleansing in which Shia and Sunni will cluster in areas that they each control. The Sunni have few viable options and will continue to hit Shia neighbors and "Iraqi Government" targets with terrorist attacks. The Shia, with expert guidance from Iran, will embark on a campaign of strategic assassinations. We are not likely to see the equivalent of a Gettysburg or Antietam. But, make no mistake, there will be significant bloodletting. Most of it will not be carried out in a spectacular fashion that television can easily broadcast. The murders, as we have seen in the last year, will be carried out in groups of 10 or 20 people at a time. People will disappear in the night and turn up in mass graves or stacked at a street corner in order to send a message to the rest of the community. Saddam was not the only one familiar with this technique in order to bring about "social order".

Ultimately, the militia and security forces under the control of the Shia clerics will quash and contain the Sunnis. It will be a long struggle and the new Government of Iraq will conform to Islamic law consistent with Shia beliefs.

The real choice for the United States is to figure out if we can accept another sectarian state that resembles Iran. Given the current rhetoric directed at the mullahs in Tehran I do not see an accommodation with the clerics in Iraq as a politically viable strategy for any U.S. Administration, Republican or Democrat. Our first step should probably be to figure out the Iraqi term for Appomatox.