Have you ever watched a civil war up close?
I have, in Lebanon and Bosnia. Awful scenes from both places cross my mind, as I watch President Bush, on television, rejecting the suggestion that Iraq is engulfed in "civil war."
Until now I, too, have argued that sectarian fighting in Iraq was not the same as the civil wars in Lebanon and Bosnia, where entire villages were burned to the ground in organized attacks by religious and ethnic militias. I've contended that the carnage will get much worse if U.S. troops exit quickly.
But in recent days, the Iraqi mayhem has definitely coalesced into the organized slaughter of civil war.
Why do such definitions matter? They matter because the advent of civil war undercuts every Iraq option being considered by the White House - as well as those on the agenda of James Baker's Iraq Study Group.
The White House "strategy" for exiting Iraq depends on the ability of the Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to reconcile Iraq's majority Shiite Muslims with the Sunni minority that held power under Saddam Hussein. Without such political peace the Iraqi security forces we are training will continue to divide according to their religion and sect.
But Prime Minister Maliki is clearly incapable of pulling the country together. Even before the U.S. elections, Shiite and Sunni militias had started to struggle for territorial control of Iraq.
Let me stress that civil war in Iraq was not foreordained. There is a rush by pundits who wholeheartedly supported the Iraq venture to blame the current mess on "Iraqi culture" and historic animosities. This is a self-serving mantra to deflect blame from the Bush team and their own writings.
Indeed, given the historic Sunni persecution of Shiites and Kurds, it's amazing how long it took for civil war to explode.
From the day Baghdad fell, hard-line Sunni Baathists and Islamists were determined to prevent the takeover by the Shiite majority. These Sunnis sought to sow such chaos that Iraqis would yearn for a new strongman, and the Americans would leave. For nearly three years, Sunni insurgents blew up Shiite mosques and markets with the explicit goal of provoking civil war.
For three years, the Shiites refrained from revenge. Restrained by their top clerics they waited for elections that would give them political power. They also waited for the Americans to stabilize the country, or train Iraqis to do so. The Americans failed.
Only now is the Pentagon heeding the urgings of U.S. Army commanders and training U.S. troops in counterinsurgency warfare. But instead of confronting a Sunni insurgency, U.S. soldiers now face civil war.
That civil strife exploded in February, when al-Qaida blew up a holy Shiite shrine. At that point - with Shiites running the government and the Americans unable to guarantee security, Shiite militias began to strike back.
For their training, these militias look not to America but to Shiite Iran and the Iranian-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon. That should come as no surprise. A senior Iranian official told me last May in Tehran, "If you Americans can't train the Iraqis to fight (Sunni) insurgents, we will."
In the last few weeks the sectarian attacks and counterattacks have become far more organized. Now, Shiite and Sunni militias are fighting pitched battles in towns near Baghdad and waging an organized war for control of key Baghdad neighborhoods.
If Bush had 50,000 more U.S. troops to send to Baghdad and Anbar, the slide to civil war might be halted. But the military doesn't have the troops.
Nor do Iraqi fighting forces have political leaders capable of negotiations. Sunnis are fragmented; Shiite power is split among religious parties and clerics. The fighting could drag on for years.
The bipartisan Baker group, whose Iraq recommendations are being nervously awaited in Washington, is still banking on a reconciliation scheme. Baker wants an international conference that will include Iraq's neighbors - in hope that Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia can nudge the Iraqis toward compromise.
This effort is definitely worth trying, but the chances of success are slim. And if Iraqi reconciliation is no longer possible in the near term, America's Iraq options shrink even more.
Perhaps, Iraqis will pause at the abyss. If not, U.S. troops can stay as civil war flares, or watch the killing explode more violently when they leave. American forces may have to reinvade after Sunni Anbar province becomes a training base for al-Qaida Islamists seeking to control the region.
Either way, I fear a repetition of the Lebanese and Bosnian slaughter. The responsibility will lie at the White House door.