Violence in Iraq has escalated, following the February 22 attack on the revered Shiite shrine al-Askari in Samarra.  Some 200 Sunni and Shiite mosques were attacked, burned, or bombed in the two-month period after the attack.  The weekly toll of explosions, retaliatory attacks, and targeted killings has prompted many commentators to describe the chaotic conflict as a “civil war.”

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rums-feld, under renewed pressure for the U.S. military’s lack of progress or an exit strategy, rejected this designation.  He claimed that many reports of violence were “exaggerated” and accused the media of giving heart to the terrorists and discouraging those who hope for success.

At the opposite end of the political spectrum, commentators in the Arab world accused the United States of surreptitiously fomenting sectarian violence in order to have a reason for an extended military presence.  “Claims that Iraq is about or has already fallen into a civil war benefits [sic] the occupation hugely,” opined Al Jazeera on April 21.  It quoted veteran British reporter Robert Fisk as saying that Iraq is not a sectarian but a tribal society, yet “somebody,” nevertheless, is trying to provoke a civil war: “The real question I ask myself is: who are these people . . . ?  Now the Americans will say it’s Al Qaeda, it’s the Sunni insurgents.  It is the death squads.  Many of the death squads work for the Ministry of Interior.  Who runs the Ministry of Interior in Baghdad?  Who pays the Ministry of the Interior?  Who pays the militia men who make up the death squads?  We do, the occupation authorities.”

Both Rumsfeld and Fisk are wrong.

To the former, misrepresenting Iraq, by now, comes naturally.  Before the war, Rumsfeld was persistent in advancing two false claims: the supposed threat of Saddam’s supposed weapons of mass destruction and Iraq’s alleged links to the September 11 attacks.  He claimed that U.S. troops would be greeted as liberators.  He trusted the unsavory Ahmad Chalabi.  He hoped that an occupation force many times lighter than that recommended by his generals would be able to occupy, secure, and defend Iraq after the war.

Rumsfeld’s current claim that the situation in Iraq is not as bad as that presented by the media is belied by his own officials, who use helicopters to get from the airport to the fortified American compound in the center of Baghdad rather than risk driving 12 miles on the best-guarded road in the Middle East.  It is belied by the mass exodus of the remnant of the Christian community, by armed ad hoc militiamen who guard exposed Sunni and Shiite neighborhoods and sites, and by the fact that, as of this writing, over 1,000 Iraqi civilians are dying a violent death each month.

In Iraq, “civil war” may be an incorrect designation only in a technical sense—i.e., for reasons that made that term inapplicable to America’s experience of 1861-65.  If we take the view that Iraq’s Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds do not share a sense of a single collective identity or a commitment to a single Iraqi polity, what is emerging might more properly be called the War Between the Communities.  But a “war” it most assuredly is, Secretary Rumsfeld’s objections notwithstanding.

Robert Fisk is wrong in suspecting that the United States is fomenting that war, not because the U.S. government is necessarily loath to engage in such heinous practices but because it is too inept to do so effectively and without detection.  Divide et impera demands a self-confident imperial mind-set, a cool head, and a knack for intricate planning that, at their respective peaks, characterized Roman and Byzantine prefects and British district commissioners.  Today’s benevolent global hegemonists are clumsy plodders, by comparison.

The reason U.S. troops prefer not to get involved even when their nominal Shiite partners use state resources to escalate sectarian violence is more banal: They have no choice.  Seriously confronting Shiite militias, such as the Iranian-connected al-Badr, which have successfully infiltrated Iraq’s police and security apparatus, would be too costly for the undermanned occupation force.  For U.S. commanders and policy planners, it is enough of a headache to ponder the attitude of Iraq’s Shiites—more than two thirds of the country’s 25 million people—if Iran’s nuclear installations are eventually bombed, and if Iran retaliates by all means military, economic, and political that she can deploy.

For many regional analysts, that question is not “if” but “when.”  They do not doubt the ability of this administration to get involved in situations it can neither resolve nor control.  If it decides to take on President Ahmadinejad, the global consequences cannot be predicted.  In Iraq, they will ensure that the spring of 2006 will not be remembered as much of a “war” after all.