Is Iraq Falling Apart?

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Iraqis inspect damage after a wave of attacks in Baghdad killed more than 60 people Thursday

Less than a week after the final U.S. troops pulled out, a string of more than a dozen bombings have left more than 60 dead in largely Shiite neighbors around Baghdad. It apparent signals a resumption of the Shiite-Sunni violence that Saddam Hussein – and then the U.S. military – kept largely bottled up for decades. “These are the kinds of attacks that can take Iraq right back to 2006” when the country found itself amid a civil war, warns Stephen Biddle, an Iraq expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.

But the attacks – and more like them sure to come – don’t necessarily mean the country is falling apart, says Anthony Cordesman, military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “This kind of unstable transition is almost typical of what happens under these conditions, and Iraq may muddle through,” he says. “This political power struggle may actually catalyze something approaching a real national compromise.” But Cordesman, in a report released Wednesday, concludes the war was a misadventure for Washington.

“U.S. and Iraqi forces scored impressive tactical victories against the insurgents in Iraq from 2005-2009, but the U.S. invasion now seems to be a de facto grand strategic failure in terms of its cost in dollars and blood, its post-conflict strategic outcome, and the value the US could have obtained from different uses of its political, military, and economic resources,” he writes.

So who won? “Unless the U.S. does act far more decisively, Iran seems likely to be the de facto winner of the US invasion of Iraq,” Cordesman adds. “It now enjoys deep ties in a neighboring country with which it once fought a fierce and bloody eight-year war. Iran has a great deal of cultural, military, and economic resources available to influence Iraq. Moreover, Prime Minister [Nouri Al-] Maliki may have alienated enough Sunnis, and caused enough Kurdish fears to make him and other Shi’ite steadily more dependent on Iran.”

At the White House, spokesman Jay Carney made clear Wednesday that the U.S. troops withdrawal has anything to do with any violence that comes afterward. “Maybe folks weren’t paying attention, but political disputes have been happening while there were 40,000 troops, 80,000 troops, 150,000 troops,” Carney said. “We certainly expect that there will be difficult days ahead in Iraq, but the progress has been substantial.”

But even before the latest bombings, debate was breaking out in Washington over whether or not the nearly nine-year U.S.-led war was “worth it” – as Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, and several of his senior military commanders, have recently declared. The bottom line in Iraq remains the same: if the country returns to civil war in the coming months, of what value were the nearly 4,500 U.S. deaths, 30,000-plus U.S. woundings, and the expenditure of about $1 trillion by U.S. taxpayers?

“Americans planted a tree in Iraq,” Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has said. “They watered that tree, pruned it, and cared for it. Ask your American friends why they’re leaving now before the tree bears fruit.”

The American line has shifted from victory to opportunity.

U.S. troops have “given Iraq the opportunity for a better future, to define for themselves what the way ahead is and to define what a sovereign, free and democratic Iraq should look like,” Pentagon spokesman George Little said Wednesday.

“It’s their ring to grasp,” Navy Captain John Kirby added.

Some of us are old enough to remember riding the carousel, and reaching for that brass ring. The ride cost a dime.