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Boys play soccer in front of closed shops during curfew in Baghdad, November 26, 2006. Baghdad was under a vehicle curfew for the third day. It was imposed after Thursday's bombings in the Shi'ite stronghold of Sadr City that killed 202 people. (Mohammed Ameen/Reuters)

One of the most criticial questions about Iraq has been whether any sort of civil society amongst the various factions and infighting could continue to sustain itself despite the war and chaos and hatred and bloodshed.  Increasingly it has seemed that the answer was no, just going by the headlines and the increasing tensions between militias and governmental factions and the sheer level of sectarian bloodshed in the daily morgue reports.  But here and there, you can catch glimpses of the humanity that lies beneath all the ruins, and the little bits of hope to which the residents of the war-torn nation cling.  From the WaPo today:

Yet amid the fear gripping this city of 7 million, there were also signs of Iraq's famous cohesiveness, even as the sectarian divide widened. In some mixed neighborhoods, Shiites provided shelter to Sunnis targeted by Shiite militiamen, even though they risked being branded as collaborators. Others took care of Sunni children or bought groceries for Sunni neighbors who feared walking to the local market….

Since Thursday, he said, he has stayed inside his home. He carries his AK-47 and 60 bullets everywhere, even to bed. "I hug my AK-47 more than my wife," Sammaraie said.

His two small daughters don't understand. His 14-year-old asked him why he carried a gun all the time. He replied: "Do you want your dad to get killed?"

At night, he heads to the roof of his house, a cup of coffee in one hand, his AK-47 in the other. From there, he scans the streets for militiamen.

But if his house gets attacked, he will turn to Zuheari for help. Zuheari said he can't forget when Sammaraie's relatives offered shelter to his family during the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Now it's his turn to return the favor. The men placed a ladder against a wall in Sammaraie's back yard. If Shiite militiamen appear, Sammaraie and 16 relatives will use it to climb over the wall and into Zuheari's home.

"If the Mahdi Army finds out we are supporting a Sunni, maybe they will turn against us," Zuheari said. "They will think we are collaborators. This is a big problem. We don't know what will happen. I have one AK-47. We cannot do anything."

Still, Zuheari warned Sammaraie on Friday when he received a text message from a Shiite friend in Sadr City saying that the "young people of the Mahdi Army have taken revenge on the Sunnis." Without revealing the message, "I told him he should move his family inside my house," Zuheari said.

This is what life has become for the people of Iraq. Fear, reprisals, ever-constant bloodshed…and hugging an AK-47 as a means of survival for your family, at all costs.  Why?  Because of this:

Since those attacks, quasi-armies of residents in mixed and majority-Sunni Arab neighborhoods have formed to protect their streets. Sunni Web sites are offering advice on how to kill Shiite militiamen. College students and executives pace at their homes, clutching rifles and handguns around the clock. Iraqis are posting pleas on Internet message boards to buy extra ammunition and weapons.

Despite a government-imposed curfew, Iraqis described Shiite militiamen murdering Sunnis at checkpoints, controlling neighborhoods with impunity and conspiring with Iraq's majority-Shiite police force, which the Interior Ministry controls. Other Iraqis spoke of mortar shells raining on their mosques and gun battles outside their houses, deepening their mistrust of Iraq's security forces and elected politicians.

And this:

Iraq's precarious government was teetering yesterday as a powerful Shia militia leader threatened to withdraw support after sectarian killings reached a new peak and the country lurched closer to all-out civil war.

The prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, was forced to choose between his US protectors and an essential pillar of his coalition, when Moqtada al-Sadr declared his intention to walk out, potentially bringing down the government, if Mr Maliki went ahead with a meeting with President George Bush in Jordan next week.

Mr Maliki, a moderate Shia, faced the dilemma as the cycle of killings reached new levels of savagery. Yesterday, there were reports that at least 60 Sunnis had died in revenge killings and suicide attacks, including one episode in which Shia militiamen seized six Sunnis as they were leaving a mosque, doused them with petrol and set them alight, while soldiers reportedly stood by. In another attack, gunmen burned mosques and killed more than 30 Sunnis in Baghdad's Hurriya district before US forces intervened.

And especially this:

The insurgency in Iraq is now self-sustaining financially, raising tens of millions of dollars a year from oil smuggling, kidnapping, counterfeiting, connivance by corrupt Islamic charities and other crimes that the Iraqi government and its American patrons have been largely unable to prevent, a classified United States government report has concluded.

The report, obtained by The New York Times, estimates that groups responsible for many insurgent and terrorist attacks are raising $70 million to $200 million a year from illegal activities. It says $25 million to $100 million of that comes from oil smuggling and other criminal activity involving the state-owned oil industry, aided by “corrupt and complicit” Iraqi officials.

As much as $36 million a year comes from ransoms paid for hundreds of kidnap victims, the report says. It estimates that unnamed foreign governments — previously identified by American officials as including France and Italy — paid $30 million in ransom last year.

A copy of the seven-page report was made available to The Times by American officials who said the findings could improve understanding of the challenges the United States faces in Iraq.

The report offers little hope that much can be done, at least soon, to choke off insurgent revenues. For one thing, it acknowledges how little the American authorities in Iraq know — three and a half years after the invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein — about crucial aspects of insurgent operations. For another, it paints an almost despairing picture of the Iraqi government’s ability, or willingness, to take steps to tamp down the insurgency’s financing.

“If accurate,” the report says, its estimates indicate that these “sources of terrorist and insurgent finance within Iraq — independent of foreign sources — are currently sufficient to sustain the groups’ existence and operation.” To this, it adds what may be its most surprising conclusion: “In fact, if recent revenue and expense estimates are correct, terrorist and insurgent groups in Iraq may have surplus funds with which to support other terrorist organizations outside of Iraq.”

The individual cost to Iraqis is rising.  It is showing up in ways that we have seen throughout history, through a flood of refugees, pouring out of Iraq as swiftly as grains of sand pour through the tiny neck of an hourglass.  And they are coming to our shores, as well as pouring into Jordan and Syria and all over the Middle East and Europe.  These are educated Iraqis, the business classes, the professionals — doctors, educators, shopkeepers — all of the people that Iraq needs to be a functioning society, fleeing that nation as soon as an opportunity arises to smuggle themselves across the border.  Because they want to continue to live. 

And without them, Iraq as a nation will die, because what they will be left with is militias, politicians surrounded by a phalanx of hired guns, those so craven as to attempt to take advantage of the chaos, and a terrified populace of those too poor or too unlucky to get out.  There is no cohesion in that scenario, only chaos.

As the shuttle diplomacy continues, with Cheney in Saudi Arabia and the Iraqi President headed to Iran (if they can get violence at the Baghdad airport under control) and Condi and Bushie on their way to Jordan…the questions being raised in the region are now not merely about Iraq, but about the potential for spillover into the entirety of the Middle East and beyond.

The latest violence in Iraq, which has seen hundred of civilians killed in bombings and retaliatory attacks, has raised the spectre of ethnic civil war in the country, and Western diplomats are now engaged in attempts to stem the bloodshed. However, it is not clear what they can achieve. Cheney's meeting with King Abdullah will see him push the Saudis to use their influence with Sunni insurgents in Iraq to halt attacks on the country's Shia majority. He also wants the oil-rich nation to cough up more cash for Iraqi reconstruction projects, which have slowed to a snail's pace in the face of the everyday communal violence.

One problem fuelling the violence is that Iraq is becoming a forum for its neighbours to exercise their influence. Iraq's Shia politicians and their powerful militias are increasingly under the sway of Iran. In flexing its muscles on the world stage, Iran is also carving out its own diplomatic path on Iraq. The expected Iran-Iraq summit in Tehran with Talabani is part of that process and could presage a later three-way meeting between Iraq, Syria and Iran which would be likely to outrage the US.

Such a meeting is increasingly necessary for Iraq's government, as both Iran and Syria have strong links to violent groups in the country. Talabani is travelling to Tehran in the hope of winning assurances that Iran's argument with the US over its nuclear ambitions and Israel will not be played out on Iraqi soil. 'Our hope is that Iran would not use Iraq in its dispute with America. Iran can play an important and positive role to secure Iraq,' said Talabani's spokesman, Kamran Qaradaghi.

Yet Iran seems to be already using its influence in Iraq to derail the American-led peace efforts in Jordan. Firebrand Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who is close to Iran and controls a powerful militia in Iraq, has said that he will leave the ruling coalition if Maliki meets Bush. That could trigger the collapse of Maliki's fragile government. At the same time it would be difficult for Maliki to snub Bush, who added the Jordanian summit to his schedule at the last minute in response to the Iraqi violence.

This entire situation with Iraq has been handled badly by the Bush Administration, starting with their ill-informed decision to begin the occupation of that nation in the first place. And the consequences for the repeated piling on of failure after failure, poor decision after another, is where we find ourselves today — desperately hoping that some diplomacy can, somehow, some way, pull Iraq back from the brink of chaos and destruction.

But we know, in our guts and our hearts, that it is likely already too late, and scrambling to hold on to some level of stability for the rest of the Middle East as everyone attempts to contain the damage to Iraq alone. Some nations and leaders are attempting to leverage the chaos to their advantage — Moqtada Al-Sadr is a good example of this, pushing against the current national leadership to pull himself upward in the Great Game — but for what?

In the end, who is served by being the King of Chaos? And who will reap the benefits of this whirlwind spinning out of control and reaching its tentacles of death and destruction further and further outward in the region?  Beyond the war profiteering and the no-bid contracts, who benefits from George Bush's war?  The McCains and the Lieberman's of the world cannot back down now, or they will lose face in their own minds, seemingly, based on their recent statements and actions.  The Bush Administration certainly is not going to admit an error — heaven forbid.  We have created our own worst nightmare, and worse, we did it without any provocation from Iraq other than the stubborn public statements of a madman which were used to justify the actions of a hotheaded President bent on revenge and one-upsmanship on his Daddy.

Somewhere, in the mountains of Afghanistan or Pakistan, Osama Bin Laden is smiling. And not just because suicide bombs have begun in Kabul.

History will judge the Bush Administration for its failures of long-term analysis and short-term idiocy. And it will be a harsh judgment, of that I have no doubts. Every day that we stay in Iraq, things get worse.  Everything that Goerge Bush has touched there has gone badly in the end.  And the Iraqi people deserve far better than what they are barely surviving at the moment.  Political solutions are few and far between, and not likely to come any time soon.  Military solutions are even more unlikely, given the wholly botched idiocy that Rummy and Cheney and Bush and McCain and Lieberman and their ilk foisted on that nation. 

Death and destruction are ruling the day in Iraq, if this morning's news is any indication of life there.  Here and there, though, you get a glimpse of the humanity that survives somehow, blooming in a tiny patch of sunlight amidst all the darkness.  The photo above of children finding some joy in a game of soccer outside the closed shops of Baghdad.  The friendship across religious fault lines that will last, perhaps, for some time longer, if they are lucky.

But in the meantime, what is to be done amid the chaos?