Three years into the U.S.-led intervention in Iraq, that country teeters between the promise of a safer society and the sectarian chaos that Saddam Hussein's dictatorial hand once controlled.
How could it have come to this, after all the planning and anticipation of various possibilities that should have preceded the intervention?
Unfortunately, available evidence suggests that the Bush administration's strategizing was built on a best-case outcome and apparently never seriously considered less-palatable developments.
Actually, in 2003, Iraq faced prospects along three lines, all of which I examined in a column before the intervention. One, which I rejected, indicated an unquestionable win, a warm embrace by the Iraqi people and a rapid transition to a stable, democratic system.
Another scenario not worthy of lengthy consideration was the Mesopotamian Stalingrad concept that derived from an exaggerated assessment of Saddam's military power. If real, it would have devastated the intervening forces with weapons of mass destruction.
The third scenario, which I embraced, anticipated a quick battlefield victory by U.S.-led troops, followed by a long, deadly, costly, contentious occupation - essentially what has happened.
But last week's terrorist attack against a Shiite mosque in Samarra, one of the holiest sites to that Islamic sect, represents a sharp turning point. It is time to reassess.
Again, at least three futures loom, but - given the imperiled talks to form a new Iraqi government, widespread uncertainty, increasing instability, routine terrorism and religious passions heightened by the mosque attack - it is difficult to make projections.
One strong possibility is a civil conflict that some people say should have been waged long ago to allow a true settling of differences. The Bush administration plays down that scenario, with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld asserting that sectarian violence is common in the region and that Iraqis are simply "going through a political process." Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice also has dismissed notions of an impending civil war. Senior Iraqi leaders representing key groups have issued calls for calm.
However, should the opposite prevail and foreign forces opt to withdraw - which hopefully will not happen - most of Iraq could find itself embroiled in relentless violence. That would cast open the door to terrorists and troublemakers, including Iran. Only the Kurdish part of the country might survive.
A second possibility is the objectionable status quo. After a round of public fury and retribution, Iraqi Shiites could settle down. The parties could resume negotiations, and U.S.-led forces would help keep civil tensions in check. However, such frustrating circumstances could drag on for years.
Why not aggressively shape a positive third scenario? To succeed, the effort requires much more than appeals for calm, curfews, promises to rebuild damaged structures, avoidance of civil-war talk and other gestures that smack of Band-Aids rather than beneficial balms.
The Iraqis - who have been slow to build up competent security forces and have been embarrassed by indications of death squads and other unsavory behavior - still cannot handle the challenge. U.S.-led forces have always been too few to lock down Iraq, round up Saddam loyalists, seal the country's borders, neutralize terrorists and secure peace. Solution: an immediate influx of at least 100,000 additional troops from the allies, friendly neighboring states and other suitable countries.
Granted, some Iraqis might object, viewing more troops as an affront to their fledgling political efforts. But most Iraqis understand that their capabilities do not match their intentions.
Given a choice of civil war, opened-ended occupation or the mustering of enough foreign troops to finish the job decisively, the answer is obvious.
¢ John C. Bersia, an editorial writer for the Orlando Sentinel, also is the special assistant to the president for global perspectives and a professor at the University of Central Florida.