Iraq on its own: The death toll rises, long after the U.S. is gone

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Distressing news of increasingly bloody sectarian warfare in Iraq heightens Americans' perception that the United States should never have intervened there in the first place and the wisdom of having withdrawn from the conflict in 2011.

Iraq, with its Shiite majority at least nominally in control, led by Prime Minister Nouri Kamel al-Maliki, is experiencing higher levels of bloodshed. Casualties in April were the highest in five years, since June 2008 when U.S. forces were nominally in control although challenged by Iraqis. The cause of the current conflict is the unwillingness of Iraq's Sunni Muslims, perhaps 20 percent of the population, to accept the dominance of the Shiites under the virtual dictatorship of Mr. al-Maliki. Iraq's Kurds in the north are operating as a virtually independent entity, in economic as well as political terms.

The Sunnis ruled in a unified Iraq, from independence in 1932 until the American invasion in 2003, in later years under President Saddam Hussein. The Sunnis resisted the Americans, then finally accepted being put on the U.S. payroll in return for their quietly awaiting U.S. departure. In spite of the Shiites' majority, which was put into power as part of an American attempt to introduce democracy, there was probably no reason to imagine that the Sunnis would accept Shiite rule over them.

There is some belief that the two-year-old civil war in Syria, which pits the government against a variety of Sunni militias, has strengthened the hand of Sunni oppositionists in Iraq, although the relationship between the two conflicts is not entirely clear. Both countries hosted ruling Baath parties, but were opposed to each other for nationalistic and ideological reasons under Saddam Hussein and Syrian President Bashar Assad's father, Hafez Assad. What is clear is that the disorder in one country tends to spill over into the other, if for no other reason than that arms are freely available in the two conflicts.

What may be a descent into chaos in Iraq, with an unclear outcome as to which elements will emerge on top, makes two important points to Americans. The first is that it was a colossal mistake for the United States in 2003 to invade that country and imagine that it was somehow susceptible to being remade, as if old conflicts could be erased at the ballot box. The second is just how lucky the United States is not to be in charge of what happens there next.

Unfortunately, the price for Americans was high -- more than 4,000 dead and financial costs that will continue to be paid for decades to come -- but the fate of Iraq is now in the hands of Iraqis, to do whatever they choose.

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