The burst of panic over the current unrest in Iraq is somewhat amusing to those of us old fogeys whose memories extend back as far as those long-ago days of, oh, around mid-2003. Back then, if you'll recall, a fairly large, well-organized insurgency was running an effective guerrilla campaign against the occupying US troops, inflicting steady casualties and preventing order from being imposed on several major locales. Military operations against the insurgents were allegedly killing, injuring or just inconveniencing large numbers of Iraqi civilians, provoking them to resent and even oppose the American occupiers. The way was thus supposedly being paved for the return of a revitalized Saddam Hussein on the heels of a fleeing US occupation force, sick of taking bullets for a sullen, hostile populace.
Today, despite appearances, the combined Sunni-Shia "uprising" is not a serious threat to the US occupation forces. I expect that within a few weeks at most, the rebellion will have been thoroughly quashed, Muqtada al-Sadr will be either killed, captured or in hiding, and American troops will once again be in fairly complete control of Iraq. Unfortunately, that's where the Americans' problem starts.
For the current unrest is not really a severe problem in itself, but rather a symptom of a much larger one: the massive power vaccuum into which former Ba'athists and al-Sadr are attempting to step. The Americans have concentrated excessively on "reconstruction" and democracy, rather than building a credible (that is, sufficiently force-projecting) domestic alternative to the former Ba'athist power structure. Worse still, they've announced their intention to, in effect, cut and run by mid-year, handing over authority to a pitifully weak provisional government. The door has thus been opened for both Sunni remnants of the old regime and Shia agents of neighboring Iran to fill the void the US troops will leave behind.
I argued eight months ago that the pursuit of democracy in Iraq was getting in the way of the urgently-needed process of building a credible governmental power structure there, and that the consequences of these misplaced priorities would be disastrous for both the US and Iraq. This past week's troubles are not themselves the disastrous consequences of which I spoke. Rather, they are a mere hint of the chaos that will reign--and the ease with which foreign powers like Iran will exploit it--if the Americans stick to their publicly stated plans.