Mortar fire in Baghdad drives home the danger: Iraq is on the edge of civil war. But that line hasn't yet been crossed, and nearly a week into a wave of insurgent-triggered sectarian strife, the emerging nation clings to a fragile balance.
If that balance holds -- and it's still a large if, vulnerable to more terror attacks and outrages -- there can be some confidence that new national structures and a new national spirit have taken at least enough root to withstand an early storm. If a stronger Iraq emerges from this test, there is a stronger chance American troops can start coming home. If civil war erupts, sectarian allegiances will have triumphed over national ones and Iraq will descend into political chaos and street violence.
The best hope for the insurgency -- either the part of it fomented by Saddam Hussein's former Baathists or the part run by Abu Masab al-Zarqawi's al-Qaida in Iraq -- is civil war. Chaos feeds insurgency, and both Zarqawi and the Baathists hope for Western discouragement and withdrawal, domestic political collapse and a power vacuum they can exploit at gunpoint.
Last Wednesday's destruction of the Shiites' Golden Mosque in Samarra was calculated to drive a wedge between Shiites and Sunnis, sever the still-fragile political ties among Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds, and defeat the U.S. push for a unity government. By attacking a shrine within their own religion, if not their own sect, the radicals set several challenges:
Iraq's still-evolving government faces the most difficult test. Still vulnerable as it seeks a form that creates national unity out of ethnic and religious diversity in a region far more used to strife in those areas, it must meet this crisis in ways that inspire popular as well as sectarian confidence. And that solution must clearly come from within Iraq, not be imposed by foreign force of arms.
Regional governments also are challenged by this attack, and by the wave of sectarian violence it touched off. In seeking to trigger internal strife within Islam, Iraq's insurgents also demonstrated the threat they pose to other Islamic nations. The insurgents' callous targeting also ought to trigger deep concern within clear-thinking Arab and Islamic governments, in contrast to the rhetoric of Persian Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose blaming of Israel and the United States for the attack is either cunningly manipulative or evidence he is blinded by his own prejudices.
The United States and its Iraq coalition must remain strongly supportive in military matters, but cannot simply lead a suppression of violence without proving insurgents' claims of foreign occupation and inheriting a need for a strong long-term presence in Iraq. Nor can it simply cut and run, without leaving the region more unstable than it was before the invasion. Politically, the American-led coalition must continue its push for a unity government.
Early this week, tension seemed to ease within Iraq, except for Baghdad. Attacks on mosques dwindled, although episodes of street violence continued. Key Sunni groups offered to rejoin the unity government talks. Iraqi leaders felt hopeful enough to lift an unprecedented daytime curfew in many areas, and if that allows a resumption of activity without facilitating more attacks, some key gains toward a new Iraq can be claimed.
But this fight is far from over. Violence can flare again, and insurgents will continue to provoke the civil war that, to them, is a path to victory. Iraq, not the West, must see another way out -- and take it.