Iraq devolves into a quagmire

The conflict in Iraq is coming to resemble the tragedy of Vietnam.

The standoff between U.S. troops and forces loyal to the rebel Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in Najaf, Iraq, is now well into its second week. Fighting has raged in the close quarters of a 5-square-mile cemetery and within earshot of the holiest shrine in Shia Islam, the Imam Ali mosque. Whatever else the battle might say about the U.S. presence in Iraq, it has brought into sharp focus a war that is becoming the biggest foreign policy blunder in a generation.

Simply put, Iraq is a Vietnam-style quagmire in slow motion. The body count might not be in the tens of thousands, and the terrain might bear little resemblance to the jungles of Southeast Asia, but the war in Iraq is taking shape much as another colossal U.S. mistake did some 30 years ago.

Then, U.S. military might was steadily overwhelmed by a guerilla army intent on waging a decades-long war of attrition. Today, that same military finds itself stymied by a ragtag band of insurgents that understand roadside bombs can be every bit as deadly as laser-guided missiles.

U.S. troops in Iraq cannot afford to ignore al-Sadr’s militias, and they have little choice but to go door-to-door in search of weapons and insurgents. But rummaging through Iraqi homes and handcuffing Iraqi men face-down in the dirt, like fighting in the shadows of Shiite mausoleums and mosques, will not win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people.

Every insurgent attack leaves U.S. troops more wary of Iraqi civilians. And every angry confrontation between U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians fuels an insurgency with moral support and fresh recruits. Underneath this vicious cycle lies a quagmire with no end in sight.

As in Vietnam, U.S. hubris and incompetence are on vivid display. Once again, U.S. service people are bogged down in a seemingly unending conflict far from home. And, once more, the reasons for that conflict no longer make sense.

In the months leading up to the war in Iraq, U.S. officials consistently refused to speculate about how long troops would stay in Iraq. Now, 16 months and nearly 1,000 U.S. casualties after the fall of Saddam Hussein, those troops have no prospect of coming home any time soon. Sadly, the true cost of the war in Iraq has only just begun.