Iraq has moved perilously close to civil war. Everyone who knows anything about the tortured history of that country, cobbled together from disparate parts by British colonial officials less than a century ago, has always dreaded such an outcome.
Fear of civil war stayed the hand of the first President George Bush, when he turned back American troops and left Saddam Hussein in power. It generated much of the opposition to the current President Bush's invasion in 2003. Yet many critics of the invasion, including this page, believed that the dangers from civil war were so dire that American troops, once in, were obliged to remain as long as there was a conceivable route to a just peace.
The only alternative to civil war is, and has always been, a national unity government of Shiites, Sunni Arabs and Kurds. Unless these mutually suspicious groups can work together, the United States will be faced with the impossible task of trying to create a stable democracy that Iraqis have refused to create for themselves.
The chances of putting together such a government grew much smaller with the bombing of a major Shiite shrine in the largely Sunni city of Samarra last week, an attack that literally blew the lid off the simmering animosity between Iraq's two main religious factions. That hatred and distrust had been heated to a high boil by the sharp-shouldered and small-minded maneuvering over the formation of a new government.
To millions of enraged Shiites, all Sunni Arabs suddenly seemed indistinguishable from the Samarra bombers. Seeing that the weak-willed and poorly disciplined Iraqi security forces had utterly failed to protect their revered mosque and shrine, Shiites looked instead to the vicious and brutal sectarian militias run by leading Shiite political parties. They promptly unleashed a torrent of bombings and killings directed against Sunni mosques, mullahs and terrified civilians.
Those bloody reprisals have so far killed hundreds of people. They confirmed Sunni fears that the Shiite-led government would not lift a finger to protect their lives, families, property and mosques from a reign of terror inflicted by militias affiliated with the leading government parties.
The desperately dangerous situation that now prevails in Iraq could never have been created by Sunni terrorists alone, or by the dithering ambivalence of Sunni political leaders, who seem unable to decide from one day to the next whether they are ready to engage in the give-and-take of parliamentary politics. Much of the blame must also go to ambitious and revenge-minded Shiite political leaders, who, for the past year, have thwarted constitutional compromises and given members of their party militias key posts in the government security forces and Interior Ministry prisons. To this day, they continue to resist the formation of a broadly inclusive national unity government.
Some of the worst offenders on this score include the incumbent prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, who has just been nominated for another term; his crucial ally Moktada al-Sadr, the rabidly anti-American cleric, politician and militia leader; and Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, who heads Iraq's most powerful Shiite party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.
If Iraq can still be saved from its consuming hatreds, at least some of these major Shiite leaders will have to rise to the moment and abruptly change their ways. Kurdish leaders can help by pledging to withhold their support for Mr. Jaafari's renomination unless he agrees to a broadly representative national government. And Sunni leaders will have to embrace and take part in such a government, accepting the fact that they are a minority in the population and must get used to playing a secondary, though still significant, role.
If civil war broke out, innocent Shiite and Sunni civilians would suffer first, but the repercussions could spread far beyond Iraq's borders. The Shiite south would be further propelled into the political orbit of Iran, and Kurds in the north would claim independence, probably drawing in Turkey. The oil-free western and central Sunni area would be left impoverished, a potential no man's land that could become a home base for terrorists operating around the globe.
Iraq's elected leaders can still save their country. They must now prove that they want to. Time is rapidly running out.