Time for the U.S. to swallow its pride, call for U.N.

Iraq now looks to be a country on the verge of imploding.

American officials have been warning for months that violence in Iraq was likely to intensify as the June 30 date for the transfer of sovereignty neared. Just how accurate those warnings were has become painfully clear in recent days. The sharp upsurge in violence, accompanied by U.S. military offensives and mounting casualty rates, looks and feels more like a war than the minor insurgency coalition officials have deemed it.

The Shiite uprising in the south and the ongoing Sunni rebellion in central Iraq leave U.S. officials with no choice but to face the Pandora’s box they opened 13 months ago in toppling Saddam Hussein. If Iraqis are to enjoy peace and democracy any time soon, U.N. aid is needed to resolve the dilemma of transferring rule and reducing U.S. presence without igniting civil war.

Iraq now looks to be a country on the verge of imploding. The killings last week of four U.S. security personnel in Fallujah, Iraq, have left many wondering about the fate of democracy in a post-occupation Iraq. Situated in the so-called Sunni Triangle, Fallujah is home to many Saddam loyalists who remain opposed to a U.S. presence and fearful of Shiite domination. The concern about instability in Iraq is reinforced by the Shiite revolt now engulfing much of the south.

What had been simmering resentment only a week ago has now erupted into the most serious threat to security since the invasion itself. Organized by the radical young Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, the attacks have elicited statements of wartime resolve from the White House and promises of additional troops from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

U.S. relations with al-Sadr are partly to blame for this new outbreak of violence. While occupation authorities focused their attention on more mainstream power brokers like the Iraqi Governing Council and the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, al-Sadr quietly built himself a loyal following. In recent weeks, the popular cleric has grown increasingly vocal in his opposition to the U.S.-led provisional government, using one sermon to ally himself with the Palestinian terrorist organizations Hamas and Islamic jihad. The recent decisions to close a pro-al-Sadr newspaper and arrest one of the cleric’s senior aides on murder charges – not to mention threatening to arrest al-Sadr himself – have further inflamed an already volatile situation. U.S. authorities clearly underestimated the influence al-Sadr can have on events in Iraq.

Administration planning for postwar security was equally ill-conceived. It is now clear that the United States has never had enough troops, or expertise, in Iraq. The inability to gain U.N. backing for the invasion, like the refusal to give the United Nations a role in the reconstruction effort, has cost the United States dearly. A U.N. presence would have helped coalition authorities cope with the rise of regional power brokers such as al-Sadr and Ali al-Sistani.

Similarly, while a lightweight force of 130,000 was sufficient to overwhelm Iraqi defenses and remove Saddam from power, those troop levels have left much of the country unprotected and vulnerable to rebellion. Al-Sadr-organized militia forces have simply rolled over Iraqi security details in many southern cities, in some cases commandeering police vehicles and headquarters. The drawdown of U.S. troops scheduled for this summer, timed to safely precede the fall elections, has always depended on the creation of a stable and effective Iraqi security force. But whatever confidence there might have been in such forces has surely disappeared amid the latest surge of fighting.

All this leaves the United States facing a quandary that has quagmire written all over it. If the Bush administration proceeds with its scheduled troop reductions through the summer, it risks leaving Iraq unsecured and vulnerable to ethnic and sectarian violence. But maintaining current troop strength and continuing operations against Sunni and Shiite resistance virtually guarantees a steady drip of U.S. casualties. Baath Party holdouts and foreign fighters have said openly that their campaign is aimed at sapping U.S. support from President George W. Bush and his war. Insurgent attacks against U.S. soldiers will likely continue as long as the troops remain on Iraqi soil.

Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., recently called Iraq “Bush’s Vietnam,” and his comparison is more accurate than many Americans might be willing to admit. Transplanting democracy is not an afternoon affair and it cannot be done on the cheap.

The Bush administration has tried nation-building on its own terms, without adequate troops or significant international assistance. We see the results of their experiment every time a U.S. soldier arrives home in a coffin. The time for obstinacy has come and gone. If ever a moment called for national humility, this is it. The situation in Iraq is unlikely to improve until the United States swallows its pride and seeks the U.N. aid it should have had all along. To continue down our current path is to invite a quagmire as deep, and every bit as bloody, as Vietnam.