"To announce that there must be no criticism of the president, or that we are to stand by the president, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public." Theodore Roosevelt
Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's declaration of war "against Shias in all of Iraq" has reinforced fears that the country is sliding towards all-out civil war. This week's toll included day-labourers in a Shia district of Baghdad and pre-dawn executions of Shia men in the provincial town of Taji. The Shia response has so far been relatively restrained. Shia leaders are fully aware that al-Qaida is trying to draw them into civil conflict. The main Shia parties, in government for the first time, hope a constitution to be voted on next month and a general election in December will confirm an historic shift of power in their favour.
Considered from this perspective, the Iraqi conflict lies at the heart of two historic struggles that were given a modern dimension by 9/11. All-out sectarian warfare in Iraq, if not avoided, could inflame passions in Shia Iran and among Sunnis and Shias in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, possibly leading to the sort of regime-changing, region-wide upheavals sought by al-Qaida.
At the same time, the US, wrestling with contradictory impulses to keep control in Iraq and disengage, may be tempted to lash out. Heavy-handed action against Syria and Iran could also spark a broader Middle East conflict. That is one reason why a compromise on Iraq's constitution that satisfies moderate Sunnis is vital before the October 15 vote, said Joost Hiltermann, Middle East director of the International Crisis Group. "If no compromise is reached ... the country will slowly dissolve into civil war and disintegrate," he predicted. "Unfortunately, this scenario now seems likely."