The British have substantially pulled back their military operations in southern Iraq, and now the area around the city of Basra is being violently contested by several Iraqi factions - all of them Shiite - and an overlapping group of criminal gangs. British bases are taking increasingly potent mortar fire.
It's starting to look like a mission that has failed.
For all the talk of progress after the U.S. troop surge in Baghdad, and the emergency reconciliation summit called this week by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, there's no particular reason to believe that the British experience in the south is anything but a foretaste of Iraq's future. The only difference is that the rest of Iraq (not counting Kurdistan) is far more riven by sectarian hatred than Basra is. The Pentagon believes it has clamped something of a lid on the violence for the time being, but that hasn't opened the door to political progress, and it can't go on indefinitely.
Next month Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker are due to report to Congress on the violence and the politics, respectively, and it's likely they'll make the argument for holding on, because letting go threatens to unleash all sorts of spectacular violence. But Americans should listen closely to determine whether either man is able to sketch out a plausible path toward some measure of reconciliation. And a wish that the various factions would give up trying to kill one another is not the same thing as an understanding of how to make that happen.
President Bush and his generals have taken to focusing all their comments on the group called al-Qaida in Iraq (or in Mesopotamia, as it styles itself). This has led to an argument about whether it's really al-Qaida, and whether it would even exist today if it weren't for the misbegotten American invasion. This is all very nearly beside the point: Though there are foreign Islamist fighters in Iraq, they are not among the primary antagonists and they are not a determining factor in the question of Iraqi reconciliation.
And that, in truth, is the only question that really matters. Can a continuing American military presence foster a peaceful coming together of Iraqi factions? It's unlikely that it can; consider Basra, which was a model of relative law and order, and which now sees Iraqis at each other's throats as soon as the British have pulled back. Basra makes it clear just how far Iraqi society has disintegrated; if the Bush administration insists on hanging on in Iraq, it will have to develop a genuine plan for putting that society back together, or else the continued occupation is a foolish and destructive waste.
And after more than four years of violence, it's frankly impossible to imagine what such a plan, if it were to have any hope of success, could entail.