Recently I got a disturbing e-mail from a friend in Baghdad who wrote as follows: "I'm leaving Iraq for good, leaving all my life behind, my memories and friends, leaving the way I'm used to living and heading for the unknown. Why am I leaving? You know better than many why."
I do know why, and it raises troubling questions about what we Americans owe the Iraqi people. What is our moral responsibility as it becomes clear that our bungled occupation has sunk Iraq into chaos - and that the country is approaching all-out civil war?
My friend, call him George, is an Iraqi Christian, a middle-age engineer who became a fixer for foreign journalists. He was my first Iraqi translator, and I was his first client. He called me "teach," but he taught me more than I taught him.
George lived in Amariyah, a Sunni neighborhood from which Shiite families have been expelled. Most shops closed after three markets were bombed. George's wife stopped attending church after a series of attacks on Christians and was afraid to go out without veiling. George had to keep his work secret lest he be killed.
But the final blow came when he returned home one evening and saw a wounded man lying on the sidewalk in a pool of blood and trying to wave down help. George - like everyone else - was too scared to stop, lest he be shot for helping the victim. As he hesitated, a white Volkswagen pulled up, and a gunman fired three more bullets into the man, then sped off.
That was when George decided to take his wife and daughter and leave for Jordan. He has no idea whether any foreign country will take his family or how they'll survive.
There are many like George. The United Nations' refugee agency (UNHCR) estimates that 1.6 million Iraqis (out of 26 million) have left the country since 2003. Some are wealthy Sunnis who backed Saddam Hussein, but most are ordinary families fleeing the violence.
The International Organization for Migration reported this month that since February nearly 190,000 Iraqis have been displaced inside their country. Sunni and Shiite families are being kicked out of neighborhoods where they are the minority.
This sectarian killing and ethnic cleansing could get much, much worse.
So what do we now owe the Iraqi people? The majority of Iraqis who are Shiite and Kurdish were happy to see Saddam ousted. But White House ignorance of Iraq's social and ethnic realities led to the disintegration of the country. U.S. policy created a power vacuum into which Sunni insurgents rushed, with the aim of provoking chaos and retaking power. They have goaded Shiites into revenge-taking and dragged the country into a civil war.
Now the United States is engaged in a debate over whether to bring the troops home, but this debate revolves largely around the impact of a U.S. exit on America's strategic interests. This is a key question, but it fails to consider the impact of our withdrawal on the Iraqi people. We dismantled their (admittedly horrible) system, so the moral burden for their present situation lies with us.
Those who want the troops to leave now contend that the occupation itself causes the violence. They argue that if we leave, and resistance to occupation stops, Iraqis can take care of foreign and local extremists by themselves.
I disagree. Sunni hard-liners believe they can retake control of Iraq. Shiites are determined to stop them. As soon as we leave, that power struggle will explode in earnest. A bloody civil war could rage for years, abetted by Iraq's Sunni Arab neighbors and Shiite Iran. Those moderates who sought a better Iraq, or worked with Americans will have to flee or be killed.
I'm very skeptical about estimates in a recent Johns Hopkins study that about 650,000 Iraqis have died since the U.S. invasion. But I fear the number of Iraqi deaths will soar if we leave the country in its present state.
That, to me, is one of the most powerful arguments for trying, after the elections, to work for bipartisan consensus on a new strategy to stabilize Iraq, as a prelude to drawing down troops. We owe the Iraqis that effort.
Yet, as I've written before, none of the available options - more troops, more U.S. trainers, pushing Iraqis toward reconciliation, trying to draw Iraq's neighbors into efforts at stabilizing the country - looks very hopeful. All are undermined by past White House failures to commit the necessary military and diplomatic resources.
If all else fails, the just option would be to let hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees into our country. I know this won't happen - but think about it. We said we wanted to make life better for Iraqis. All my friend wanted was to live out his life in Baghdad, and George W. Bush made this impossible. Don't we owe the Iraqi George entry here?