The withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq may divide the country almost as much as our arrival did in the first place.
Several groups want us to leave a substantial residual force behind after Dec. 31 when the remaining 46,000 U.S. troops are supposed to go home.
The Kurds want us to stay; so does the Iraqi military.
Sunni groups fearful of Shiite militias privately want us to stay.
A major Shiite militia says it will start a civil war if we do.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a study in inertia, says he wants us to stay but only if other major political factions join him in asking. Several probably would but don’t want to be the first.
The White House is offering to leave 10,000 troops there next year, for training, air support and backup in anti-insurgent missions.
A White House national security spokesman said any requests to keep U.S. forces there “would be given serious consideration,” meaning please, please ask.
The evidence is that conditions are indubitably better but there are still glaring gaps in security.
Just Tuesday a car bombing and a roadside bomb killed 37 outside a municipal building in a Sunni town north of Baghdad.
The bombings had the hallmark of hardened terrorists. The second bomb went off when rescuers, police and anxious bystanders rushed in to tend the wounded.
Similar attacks have taken place across the country recently, including a June 23 bombing in a Shiite neighborhood that killed at least 40.
The Green Zone is still subject to periodic mortar and rocket attacks, the most recent killing three women and two children.
The key defense and interior posts, vacant for six months, are nominally held by al-Maliki who seems incapable of doing either.
As tempting as it is, and as great as the domestic political pressure is, we cannot on humanitarian grounds simply pack up and leave, abandoning the Iraqis to the murderous factions that remain.
A possible solution is to leave a sizable U.S. special operations force behind and largely out of sight until needed. The Iraqi special ops troops are much more effective than the regular army and they have a lengthy legacy of working effectively with their U.S. counterparts.
Together they can take out the nastier elements of the remaining terrorists while the regular army and police work to make the roads, markets and neighborhoods safe.
There are rumors, seemingly credible, that assorted sectarian militias plan to attack the last American troops as they pull out in order to make videos that purportedly show them driving out the U.S. invaders. With the special ops troops there, we could give these opportunistic militias a fearful farewell gift.