The United States-led occupation forces have been fighting an insurgency that began a few months after they invaded Iraq in March 2003. Over the past six months or so, they have been running the risk of getting caught in the middle of a civil war between the Shias and the Sunnis. They may even have to contend with the total disintegration of a country they supposedly set out to transform. As recent events demonstrate, the fissures within the Shia community, Iraq's largest, have widened to such an extent that internecine warfare is likely to break out at any time. Two major political parties and several smaller groups have been competing for Shia support from the time the Saddam Hussein regime was toppled. These parties, which fought and won the parliamentary elections as a united bloc, have converted the ministries allotted to them into their particular fiefdoms. The militias of the parties that control the various departments have infiltrated the army, police, and paramilitary forces. For much of this year, the Shia parties used the state forces under their control to settle scores with the once-dominant Sunnis. On August 28, army units controlled by the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq clashed with fighters of the Jaish-al Mahdi who owe allegiance to the firebrand cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. This might have been the first clash between soldiers in uniform and Shia irregulars. However, the militias loyal to different parties have often engaged in violent confrontations while vying for control over pockets of southern Iraq. Party affiliations are not the sole cause of disunity within the community. At particular places, the militias have clashed with tribesmen fighting to protect the prerogatives of their traditional leaders.

The occupation forces could not be in a more precarious position than the one in which they find themselves now. While they were facing an intensifying insurgency or were trying to prevent a war in which one sectarian group was pitted against another, there was at least a theoretical possibility that the Sunni-led insurgency could be contained so long as the Shias did not join the uprising against foreign occupation. A war between the communities could have led to a transfer of populations and the emergence of distinct regional entities, each inhabited largely by members of one sect. Even if a confederation of these entities turned out to be unviable, the occupation forces could have at least held on to the hope of dealing separately with compact units. These forces will now face an Iraq that is being rapidly splintered into multiple enclaves, which are at war with one another. With President George Bush refusing to contemplate a withdrawal from Iraq, his country's soldiers have an unenviable task. Even as they fight an insurgency directed against them, they have to try and defuse a multitude of conflicts.