When former Iraqi prime minister Iyad Allawi recently stated that Iraq was already in the midst of civil war, he expressed the fears of many other observers. Bush administration officials vehemently disagree with this characterization, but their position looks increasingly like a classic case of denial.
The data strongly support Mr. Allawi's argument. Iraqis are being slain at a rate of 50 to 60 per day from bombings, insurgent attacks, and execution-style killings. A growing percentage of those incidents reflect explicit sectarian (Sunni versus Shia) violence.
The daily death toll also needs to be put into context. That carnage is taking place in a country of barely 24 million people. The equivalent death toll in the United States would be 600 to 720 victims each day. It is difficult to imagine anyone arguing that the U.S. was not in a civil war if that many Americans were perishing in political violence.
Iraq is already experiencing at least a low-intensity civil war. The pertinent questions now are whether the level of violence will intensify and whether the turmoil in Iraq will draw in neighbouring states. Both prospects require a significant - and rapid - change in U.S. policy.
Whatever the rationale for the original U.S. invasion of Iraq, and whatever the rationale for the postwar mission to this point, no rational person should want to keep American troops there in the face of an escalating civil war.
If the occupation forces side with one faction, they automatically earn the violent enmity of the other. If they attempt to stay neutral and separate the combatants, they risk alienating both factions. U.S. leaders may find that even a force of 133,000 troops will be sorely inadequate and in grave peril if the ongoing violence intensifies.
Even before these latest developments, there were good reasons for a prompt withdrawal of American military personnel. Avoiding getting caught in the crossfire of a civil war is an even more compelling reason.
The prospect of a Sunni-Shia civil war confined to Iraq is appalling enough, but there is the possibility of an even greater nightmare.
Former CIA analyst Michael Scheuer has warned that Iraq might become the cockpit for a regional Sunni-Shia armed struggle. The ingredients are certainly there. Predominantly Shia Iran has already taken a great interest in political and military developments in its western neighbour.
Indeed, Washington has repeatedly accused Tehran of interfering in Iraq. There is little doubt that Iran wants to see a Shia-controlled government in Baghdad and would react badly if it appeared that Iraq's Sunni minority might be posed to regain power and once again subjugate the Shia majority.
But Iraq's other neighbours are apprehensive (to put it mildly) about the spectre of a Shia-controlled Iraq. Saudi Arabia, in particular, regards the prospect of such a state on its northern border as anathema.
Syria still has important ties to the Baathist political faction in the Sunni community. Turkey has its own policy priority, namely to prevent the emergence of an independent Kurdish republic in northern Iraq - a scenario that becomes much more likely if the rest of Iraq is engulfed in civil war.
A regional Sunni-Shia proxy war in Iraq would turn the Bush administration's mission there into even more of a debacle than it has already become. Worse, Iraq's neighbours could be drawn in as direct participants in the fighting - a development that could create chaos throughout the entire Middle East.
Washington needs to take steps now to head off those dangers. The proposed bilateral dialogue with Iran is a good start, but that initiative needs to be broadened to include the other relevant parties.
Probably the best approach would be for the United States to convene a regional conference that included (at a minimum) Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Jordan, and Turkey. The purpose of such a conference should be to make all parties confront the danger of Iraq's turmoil mushrooming into a regional armed struggle that would not be in the best interests of any country involved. Ideally, that realization would lead to a commitment by the neighbouring states to refrain from meddling in the escalating violence in Iraq.
There is, unfortunately, no guarantee that such a conference would be successful. All of Iraq's neighbours have significant incentives to try to prevent a victory by one Iraqi faction or another. The temptation to meddle is powerful. A regional conference is at best a long-shot possibility to head off a looming conflagration. But it would be wise for Washington to make the attempt, because the possible alternative is a calamity for the region and, given America's extensive involvement in that part of the world, for the United States as well.