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Pioneer Editorial: What is U.S. role if civil war in Iraq?

The United States' role in Iraq took a new twist on Thursday as two highly placed officials -- Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Peter Pace and top U.S. commander in the Middle East, Gen. John Abizaid -- said that increasing violence in Baghdad could easily devolve into outright civil war.

"Civil war" is a term the Bush administration has long avoided, but now as its generals are using it, so must the president begin to cope with a new situation for U.S. troops in Iraq. The rising sectarian violence is even reversing trends of sending U.S. troops home -- as the Pentagon wants to shift more of the 133,000 stationed throughout Iraq into Baghdad and has decided to extend the deployment of some 3,500 troops. We need also note that some 2,600 of those troops serving there now are Minnesota National Guard troops.

While the question before Congress has bogged down on when to bring home U.S. troops -- Democrats wanting as soon as possible and Republicans only after democracy is stable in Iraq -- the real question needs to focus on what is our proper role in Iraq and how we get there. As Iraq seems willing to devolve into civil war, we are no longer fighting a war on terrorism.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, testifying before a Senate panel on Thursday said that "our role is to support the government. The government is holding together. The armed forces are holding together."

But are they? As sectarian violence grows, the struggle continues over control of what we want to be a fledgling democracy. We are agreed that Iraq needs to stand on its own two feet, its government assert itself and, by extension, its own police and military be strong enough to take over the "policing" duties of U.S. troops. Then the troops come home.

That effort has been slow, sliding past many deadlines, and will become even slower unless a civil war is headed off. But are we the right force to do that? It's a problem with our military that started from Day 1 -- our military, the strongest in the world, trampled over Iraq in three weeks and overturned the government. But, as we now know, the mightiest army is ill-equipped as a police force and in urban guerilla tactics.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., on Thursday aptly described our role now in Iraq as a game of "whack-a-mole," where generals try to curb violence in one area only to see it pop up somewhere else.

Our troops are the finest and best trained in the world, but they're not trained for "whack-a-mole" warfare. It's time for both the administration and Congress to work together in deciding what exactly is our role in Iraq, how we get there and, most importantly, how do we get to one Iraq, able to defend itself?