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Al-Maliki told half the story

The unrest in Iraq is part terrorism, part civil war

Los Angeles Times

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's speech before Congress on Wednesday could have been written by a White House speechwriter. The Shiite leader, who took office in May, eloquently thanked the American people "for supporting our people in ousting dictatorship." He then spent most of the rest of his address placing the Iraq conflict in the context of the global war on terror.

It was all very rousing &

8212; Churchillian almost &

8212; and it is tempting to buy into this narrative. There are terrorists aligned with al-Qaida at the core of the resilient Sunni insurgency in Iraq who are desperately trying to sabotage the creation of a more democratic state. We can argue that ongoing American sacrifices to help al-Maliki's government are therefore worthy, noble even, regardless of what we thought of the initial decision to go to war.

Alas, there are two competing narratives &

8212; both rooted in reality &

8212; emerging from Iraq. Besides al-Maliki's story of an insurgency made up of foreign terrorists and Saddam Hussein loyalists taking on a nascent democracy, the competing tale is one of an escalating civil war pitting the Shiite majority against the disempowered Sunni population.

The top terrorist in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was killed more than a month ago, but the violence in the country has intensified. Although the world's attention has been diverted, far more Iraqis have died in the last two weeks than have Lebanese, and al-Maliki's fledgling government is losing control. The Bush administration is now forced to redeploy thousands of troops into Baghdad in an attempt to stabilize the capital, neighborhood by neighborhood.

The question is whether U.S. forces are going to be helping a pluralistic government survive a terrorist insurgency, or whether they are going to get caught up in a civil war &

8212; one in which the government is an instrument for the Shiites to exact revenge on the Sunnis. Far more important than the prime minister's platitudes about our alliance in the global war on terror were his acknowledgment that armed militias are "the other impediment" to stability and his pledge to disband them "without exception."

There are alarming indications of ties between government forces and Shiite militias such as the Al Mahdi group and the Badr Brigade. And episodes such as the July 9 systematic killing of dozens of Sunnis in the Jihad neighborhood of Baghdad are as damaging to Iraq's prospects as any terrorist bomb.

It isn't clear whether the window of opportunity to avert an all-out civil war has closed, but Iraq is certainly on the verge. For either al-Maliki or his Washington sponsors to pretend that the crisis is merely a question of terrorism could precipitate, not prevent, the worst-case scenario.