It has been a bloody week in Iraq. Today saw a particularly vicious attack in the action-reaction cycle that marks Iraq’s increasingly dangerous communal violence.

Masked attackers with heavy machine guns mounted on pickup trucks slaughtered at least 40 people in a crowded market area south of Baghdad on Monday, hurling grenades to blow up merchants at their counters and shooting down mothers as they fled with their children, witnesses and authorities said.

The military-style assault on unarmed civilians in the mostly Shiite city of Mahmudiyah lasted 30 minutes and was vicious even for a country besieged daily by bombs and cold-blooded attacks. At one point, the assailants entered a cafe and shot dead seven men — most of them elderly — while they were having tea, said Maythan Abdul Zahad, a police officer. He said the gunmen stepped on their victims’ heads to keep them still.

“Only those who escaped and ran were able to survive,” Zahad said in Najaf, where he later traveled to bury a cousin killed in the attack. “They did not spare anyone. Not the children. Not the elderly. The Iraqi army did not interfere.”

The massacre left the central shopping street in Mahmudiyah a charred war zone of gutted vehicles and blackened and smoldering tin-roofed shops. Some hospital authorities put the death toll at more than 70; most of the victims were Shiites.

Sunni Arab insurgents asserted responsibility for the slaughter, calling it retaliation for attacks against their own in surging sectarian violence. Hundreds of people have been killed since July 9, when suspected Shiite gunmen carried out a daytime massacre of at least 40 residents in Baghdad’s mostly Sunni neighborhood of al-Jihad.

The situation in Iraq, to put it bluntly, is looking very, very grim. One can understand why Kaufman would advocate cantonization. I could discuss, at some length, how the Bush administration’s incompetence deserves most of the blame. I’ve talked to former members of the CPA who can recount countless stories of warning their superiors about the dangers of the sectarian militias only to be brushed off with the excuse that the US didn’t have enough troops to make enemies.

Want to understand how bad things are getting? Edward Wong and Dexter Filkins report in the New York Times that:

As sectarian violence soars, many Sunni Arab political and religious leaders once staunchly opposed to the American presence here are now saying they need American troops to protect them from the rampages of Shiite militias and Shiite-run government forces.

The pleas from the Sunni Arab leaders have been growing in intensity since an eruption of sectarian bloodletting in February, but they have reached a new pitch in recent days as Shiite militiamen have brazenly shot dead groups of Sunni civilians in broad daylight in Baghdad and other mixed areas of central Iraq.

The Sunnis also view the Americans as a “bulwark against Iranian actions here,” a senior American diplomat said. Sunni politicians have made their viewpoints known to the Americans through informal discussions in recent weeks.

The Sunni Arab leaders say they have no newfound love for the Americans. Many say they still sympathize with the insurgency and despise the Bush administration and the fact that the invasion has helped strengthen the power of neighboring Iran, which backs the ruling Shiite parties.

But the Sunni leaders have dropped demands for a quick withdrawal of American troops. Many now ask for little more than a timetable. A few Sunni leaders even say they want more American soldiers on the ground to help contain the widening chaos.

One of the reasons the US didn’t “finish the job” in the First Gulf War stemmed from the realpolitik calculations of the Bush administration: they didn’t want to shift the balance of power too far towards Iran.

Disturbing news also comes from Afghanistan (via Brian Ulrich):

Taliban militants seized two towns in tumultuous southern Afghanistan, forcing police and government officials to flee, officials said Monday.

The Taliban operate freely in large areas of southern Afghanistan and police presence there often is virtually nonexistent, but insurgents only were known to have completely seized one town since their hard-line regime was toppled by U.S. forces in 2001.

They were quickly driven out of that town, Chora, in Uruzgan province.

The attacks came with thousands of U.S.-led troops involved in an offensive against Taliban holdouts and allied extremists in remote southern and eastern provinces to curb the deadliest upsurge in violence since the hard-line militia was ousted in late 2001.

On Monday, large numbers of militants chased out police after a brief clash in the town of Naway-i-Barakzayi, in Helmand province near the Pakistan border, district police chief Mullah Sharufuddin said.

Scores of Taliban forces overran police holed up Sunday in a compound in the nearby Helmand town of Garmser. The security forces and a handful of government officials fled, a local government official said.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he did not have permission to speak to the media, said Taliban forces were now “moving freely” around the Garmser and the surrounding district.

(Yes, apparently the United States cannot walk and chew gum at the same time.)

It is far too early to tell how these escalating conflicts will play out. But I think it is well beyond time for any reasonable observer to conclude that the Bush administration’s foreign policy is anything but a total failure. Even if the Israel-Lebanese crisis somehow resolves for the best, and even if the Taliban (as is likely) are pushed back when foreign troops arrive, it still won’t salvage the tattered grand strategy they’ve pursued.

I don’t say this simply to cast partisan stones but to stress that we’re long beyond the partisan debate. This administration has objectively failed in nearly every region of the globe. The real task is to figure out how the next administration, whether Democratic or Republican, can begin to staunch the bleeding.

My fear is simple: we lack the political will in this country to do what we need to do. The United States cannot turn things around without some pain–whether in the form of a draft, tax increases, or some other unpopular policy–and no politician with Presidential aspirations will ever directly admit that one cannot make a bad situation better without concrete and unpleasant sacrifices.

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