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Iraq war at 3, ugly, getting uglier Odds are against winning the peace, but too much committed to just bolt

Iraq, on the third anniversary of the American-led invasion, is a mess. It is a country engulfed by a low-level civil war that threatens to escalate into a full-scale one. It struggles toward democracy. Insurgency grows. America's goal of a model new Iraq stabilizing the Middle East seems remote, and President Bush's popularity has become a casualty of a grinding war.

The war itself was won quickly in the few short days of conventional combat launched on March 20, 2003. It's the peace that America is finding difficult to win. Poorly planned and inadequately supported with peacekeeping troops, nation-rebuilding is hindered by a guerrilla war against jihadists and nationalists that is now entering a new phase of sectarian strife.

Assessments of progress in Iraq are not all bad. Thursday, Iraq's new parliament was sworn in. Saddam Hussein got to rant in a trial far more open and transparent than any his regime staged. American commanders, as well as many of the troops returning from the war, describe gains in rebuilding the parts of Iraq that don't figure in the urban-combat hot zones far more frequently depicted on television. Iran, accused by America of supporting the insurgency, just said it is willing to join direct talks with the United States about Iraq.

But the Sunni-Shiite strife triggered by an increasingly desperate insurgency is escalating, with mass executions and other atrocities. Uncontrolled, it will tear Iraq apart. And Iraq's new parliament cannot yet agree on a "unity" government, despite U.S.-brokered talks among political power groups. There has been progress in Iraqi army and police training, and Iraqis control increasing amounts of territory, but dangerous plots and infiltrations abound.

The war dragged Bush's popularity to a new low, and many more Americans are pessimistic this all will have a good ending. Iraq, some believe, will take its place in a progression that includes the standoff in Korea, the withdrawal from Vietnam and the debacles of African firefights. Much of the dismay over this unresolved and possibly deteriorating conflict stems from America's flawed reasons for going to war. Three years in, though, the future is still more important than the past and this conflict needs a better resolution than retreating now in the face of chaos, though that could change and soon.

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