Two years and three months after President Bush announced the end of “major combat operations” in Iraq, the war is far from over.  Large areas of the country are affected by an open-ended guerrilla insurgency.  Periods of intense violence are followed by brief and temporary lulls.  Vice President Dick Cheney asserted on May 31 that the insurgency was in its “last throes” (to the privately expressed consternation of U.S. officers on the ground), but the number of daily attacks now exceeds 70; it is more than twice the figure for February.  Those attacks are carefully planned and coordinated: over a ten-hour period on the night of June 22, for instance, seven car bombs killed more than three-dozen people in Shiite Muslim neighborhoods of Baghdad.  The first half of May saw 21 suicide attacks in the nation’s capital; whereas, in the whole of 2004, there had been only 25 such attacks.

>Monthly Central Command estimates, according to which thousands of insurgents have been killed or captured, may be correct, but the ability of the resistance to attract new recruits and step up the violence remains undiminished.  Local U.S. military successes, such as the Fallujah operation last fall, appear temporary and even meaningless in the absence of a broad strategic design to end the war by political means.  In the meantime, not just the countryside but many towns in the center and west of the country are now effectively controlled by the insurgents.

>The attackers, mostly Iraqi Sunnis reinforced by some hundreds of foreign mujahideen, seek to make Iraq ungovernable by exploiting sectarian divides and fomenting an ethno-religious civil war.  Fallujah has taught them to avoid direct confrontation with U.S. forces, so they focus on Shiite soft targets instead: restaurants, mosques, and bus stations.  They have also killed about a thousand members of Iraqi police and security forces in the first half of 2005, which exceeds the total for the previous 18 months, and those forces are still far from able to stand their ground.  The attackers’ individual targets of choice are prominent Sunnis who favor cooperation with the United States and seek involvement in politics.  Salih Mutlak of the National Dialogue Council—a moderate Sunni group—warns that, if these operations continue, many Sunnis will have to end their participation in the emerging Iraqi institutions.

>Back home, support for the war is dwindling.  A recent Gallup poll found that six out of ten Americans favor partial or total withdrawal, while just 42 percent feel that the war was “worth it,” down from 76 percent in the spring of 2003.  Some Republican lawmakers are beginning to voice their doubts.  Rep. Walter Jones of North Carolina, whose district includes the Marines’ Camp Lejeune and who suggested replacing French fries with “freedom fries” on the menu in Capitol dining rooms, has joined Ron Paul of Texas and two Democrats, Dennis Kucinich of Ohio and Neil Abercrombie of Hawaii, in calling for a disengagement timetable.  Such a display of bipartisan skepticism would have been unimaginable last year, but, with the 2006 midterm elections approaching, the lawmakers with slim majorities are paying attention to their constituents who are uneasy about the war.  “Do we want to be there 20 years, 30 years?” Jones asked, adding that “we need to take a fresh look at where we are and where we’re going.”

>That fresh look is indeed overdue, and it should start with accepting that the Iraqi insurgency has political causes that are neither mysterious nor incurable.  American insistence on Iraq’s national unity has produced a major shift in the balance of political forces away from the previously dominant Sunni community.  It is 5 million strong but has only 17 members in the 275-member National Assembly.  The Sunnis fear—with good reason—that, in an Iraq dominated by a tactical alliance of Shiites and Kurds, they will be the perpetual losers.  The result is the forging of an alliance of anti-Western nationalists and Islamic radicals within insurgent ranks.

>The creative solution would demand flexibility, imagination, and ruthlessness.  It should have three key elements: First, it is necessary to address Sunni concerns and to support a constitutional arrangement that would transform Iraq into three self-governing entities, with a weak central government that would make all decisions on the basis of a clear consensus of the three subgroups.  A constitution thus drafted would pave the way for a referendum in October of this year and national elections in December in which all communities would finally have a stake.

>Second, it is necessary to prevent a joint Shiite-Kurdish front against such proposals by winning over the Kurds.  This demands the lure of substantial Kurdish autonomy in a decentralized Iraq (whether Ankara likes that or not), with the parallel warning to the Kurds that, in the final analysis, they have less reason to fear the dethroned Sunnis than Sistani and his Shiites, whose long-term goal is to turn the whole of Iraq into an Islamic republic ruled by sharia.  The Shiites’ continued good will, by contrast, may be purchased by allowing them to develop closer ties between their putative statelet in the south and their coreligionists in Iran.

>Third, it is essential to create a split within the ranks of Iraqi insurgents between those who are driven primarily by nationalist and tribal motives, and those, such as Zarqawi, who simply want to use Iraq as an episode in the global anti-American jihad.  Establishing a working rapport with secular-minded Sunni leaders demands overcoming distaste for a dialogue with former Baathists and Saddam loyalists.  They may be tainted, but a truce and a deal with them is possible; it could contain the promise of amnesty and a timetable for U.S. disengagement clearly predicated on an improved security situation.  American troops could then be gradually replaced with the contingents from those few relatively reliable partners we have in the region—notably, Egypt and Jordan.

>A plan constructed along these lines, preferably but not necessarily approved by a U.N. Security Council resolution, could be supported by the European Union and Russia if they are offered a lucrative share of a future Iraqi reconstruction package.  It contains many unknowns and may generate new dynamics that are difficult to predict and control.  It also offers a chance for disengagement without any further harm to America’s standing and without Iraq’s further transformation into a chaotic, ungovernable base for jihad.