The sort answer is that 4000 US soldiers and as many as 1.2 Million Iraqi’s have died in this conflict over the past five years. We are currently spending somewhere around $12B per month and there is no end in sight.
A quick summary of the most recent conflict is that the British pulled out of Basra in December turning the area over to local militia. The current fight was predicted by many (including me). It is between Shiite groups for control of a very valuable distribution point for Iraqi goods (read oil). Many of those Shiite groups make up the current government coalition.
The Iraqi government has made an effort, with the help of American and British air power, to bring order back to the area, but so far the militia are winning.
This again begs the question of American presence in the area. The troop surge and associated “incentives” (guns and money) encouraged rival groups to focus their efforts on al Qaeda in Iraq rather than each other. It also worked to the degree that major political figures like Moktada al-Sadr were willing to stand down in return for making some money. The hope was that during this short period of political calm, Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, could begin dividing up enough of the political pie in Iraq so that folks like al-Sadr would decide that there was more money to be made by being in the government rather than out of it.
Well that didn’t happen. In fact al-Sadr pulled his group out of the government and the most recent violence started with a call by al-Sadr for a general strike to demonstrate to the rest of the country that he is someone with political power. The government responded by sending in troops and the rest will shortly be history.
Here’s what the history will look like, “British pull-out from Basra delayed after rise in rocket attacks” and “U.S. forces drawn deeper into faceoff with militias”. Faced with a challenge, the Iraqi government has asked both the British and Americans for more troops. As long as we respond, we prop up a government that has not been able to demonstrate that it has the ability to keep peace even between it’s own elements.
President Bush has said that he sees this as a defining moment for the al-Maliki government. Yup just like the Tet offensive was the defining moment for the government of South Viet Nam.
This is not a struggle that is going to be won militarily, yet our government continues to define this conflict in those terms.
The solution in this area is going to be a political one where all sides determine that there is more to be gained by compromise than by bloodshed. Unfortunately, the deep seated differences between rival factions may require conflict before compromise can be won. As long as we are there, we perpetuate the status quo and inhibit the progress that has to come if there is ever going to be a government that doesn’t require US force in order to govern.