As each day is greeted with news of Iraq’s daily death toll, the media debates whether Iraq is embroiled in an all-out civil war. While conventional wisdom holds that the country is being cleaved apart by religious differences, this conflict actually stemmed from the U.S. government’s political miscalculations.

Foreign politicians have a history of misguided analysis about the potential for civil war in Iraq. In 1920, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George warned of civil war if the British army withdrew from Iraq. The exact same thing is heard today in the United States. Ironically, the same Iraqis George wanted to protect from each other instead united in a revolution against the British occupation forces. With rising opposition within the Shi’ite ranks against the occupation, the United States could see a similar revolt in the coming months.

Iraqi Shia and Sunnis have lived in harmony for centuries. Historically, the two sects lived in the same areas, intermarried, worked together and didn’t fight over religious beliefs. During the decade of U.S.-imposed sanctions, Iraq’s generally secular society became far more religious. This transformation even affected the secular Baathist regime, which gave Islam a bigger role in schools and other aspects of everyday life. Still, there were no social conflicts based on religious differences in the country.

When the United States ousted Saddam Hussein in April 2003, crime spiked and full-scale looting erupted. But there were still no signs of sectarian clashes. That quickly changed, however, as the U.S. administration assumed control over Iraq, led by Paul Bremer.

Bremer, attempting to put an Iraqi face on the occupation, appointed members to the Iraqi Governing Council. Instead of reflecting how Iraqis saw themselves, the council’s makeup mirrored and reinforced the U.S. sectarian view of the population — 13 Shia, five Sunnis, five Kurds, one Christian and one Turkoman.

Instead of bringing political unity, this reflection of Iraq’s diversity, when thrust into the political playing field, became the basis of sectarian division in Iraq. The U.S. plan to allocate seats at the political table by ethnic and religious identity turned this political conflict into a more complicated sectarian one. It would have been better to divide power along the spectrum of political beliefs.

As a result, new fractures in Iraqi society appeared as Iraqis began to grapple with the foreign troops occupying their country.

The splits in Iraq were exacerbated by the timing of Iraqi political events according to domestic U.S. politics. Starting with the June 2004 “transfer of sovereignty,” which was pegged to the 2004 U.S. elections, each subsequent political benchmark in Iraq was set by the United States for public relations purposes and ignored the security situation. That resulted in an election that didn’t even allow the names of candidates to be made public. The outcome of the first Iraqi elections essentially became a sectarian census and further divided the country; it was a complete failure of the democratic process our nation’s forefathers espoused.

The final straw fueling the ethnic and religious splits is the open-ended occupation. The occupation has split the Iraqi population into two major groups: those who are against getting involved in any political action as long as the occupation continues, and those who are building their new regime despite the occupation. Ironically though, as the death toll mounts on all sides, both groups now want the occupation to end.

Seeking a point of commonality, most of Iraq’s leaders have asked the United States to set a timetable for withdrawal. When President George W. Bush last visited Iraq, Iraq’s vice president asked him to set a timetable for withdrawal. Mowaffak Al-Rubaie, Iraq’s national security advisor, requested a similar “road map” for complete withdrawal. These leaders aren’t alone. The vast majority of Iraq’s parliament, religious leaders and political leaders want to know when the U.S.-led coalition troops will leave.

But instead of using the only issue that actually unifies the country to build a lasting peace, the United States continues to intervene in the political and military affairs of the country, adding more fuel to the budding civil war. U.S. intervention in Prime Minister al-Maliki’s reconciliation plan effectively scuttled perhaps the best chance for peace Iraq has had since the initial invasion.

Even worse, U.S. actions are now even dividing its stalwart Shi’ite supporters. Shi’ite Muslim religious leaders are speaking out against the government because of U.S. actions. Recent U.S. aerial bombings of Sadr City were condemned by Prime Minister al-Maliki, but many Shi’ites see him as still being too close to his U.S. handlers. Meanwhile, the United States continues to signal its intent for a permanent presence as construction of the embassy marches ahead of schedule.

Given the political blunders made by the United States, a lack of any ability to learn from these past mistakes, and with all sides in the conflict seeking an end to the occupation, the only option left is to begin the process of leaving Iraq completely. In recognition of the failed U.S. policy, 12 Senate and House Democratic leaders and ranking members from the key national security committees wrote to the president on July 31, stating, “We believe that a phased redeployment of U.S. forces from Iraq should begin before the end of 2006.”

But setting a timetable for withdrawing the U.S. troops would be only the first step in the right direction. The Bush administration has the bigger task of dealing with its consequences within Iraq and now throughout the region. With over $320 billion spent, more than 2,500 U.S. soldiers dead and countless Iraqis killed, the time for an alternative is now.

Raed Jarrar is the director of the Iraq Project at Global Exchange and is an analyst for Foreign Policy In Focus. Erik Leaver is a research fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and policy outreach director for Foreign Policy In Focus.

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