The Bush Administration has denied for years that we are bogged down in an Iraqi civil war, but now there is no doubt we’re not only in the middle of a Shia-on-Shia war but carelessly inflaming it in ways that could easily benefit Iran. The last thing this explosive situation needs is more gasoline from Secretary of War Rice, who went out of her way to taunt al-Sadr by calling him a coward.

Moktada al-Sadr and Nuri al-Maliki have issued mutually exclusive ultimatums: al-Maliki ordered the Mahdi Army to disband or be banned from participating in next fall’s elections. It’s unlikely al-Sadr will unilaterally disband his militia when every other political force in Iraq has its own militia or loyal forces embedded in Iraq’s Army. al-Sadr issued his own ultimatum, demanding that the al-Maliki government cease its operations against the Mahdi militia and its siege of Sadr City, or face all-out war for the "liberation" of Iraq from the US occupiers and their puppet government.

This should be the point where diplomacy would be helpful to prevent an uncontrollable civil war that might spill over into Iran. But this is the Bush Administration, and recall that Rice encouraged Israel to lay siege to Gaza and pursue Hezbollah in Lebanon even as the rest of the world decried the mounting civilian casualties; she’s playing midwife again, only this time it’s Sadr city civilians bearing the birth pangs for a new Iraq. The only person who might stop this madness would be a rational Republican nominee not wishing to be saddled with a three-front war. But John McCain wants this too.

The Administration wanted this fight, and Petraeus’ first duty is to protect the Green Zone from rocket attacks. His only tactical complaint was his claim — which now appears disingenuous — that the Iraqis tried to move against Basra before US forces were ready. He blamed al Maliki’s impatience for the initial stumbles, but as soon as the offensive stalled, the Americans (and British) bailed out the Iraq Army with their fire power and embedded forces. The offensive now appears to be succeeding in establishing Iraq Army control of Basra, due in part to the Iranians, who arranged al-Sadr’s withdrawal and seem willing to have the Government in control of Southern Iraq.

There have been other reports that suggest Iran is willing to allow the al-Maliki government to consolidate control, preferring that to the less controllable — by Iran — elements of Sadr’s more nationalist militia. [Update: This noteworthy NYT article suggests a convergence of US/Iranian interests in some areas, noting Iran's interest in a stable Shia-led Southern Iraq, led by Iran's closest allies in the al-Maliki government. It also notes the Iranians oppose US efforts to isolate Sadr City.] That means the Bush Administration and John McCain are engaged in a massive bait and switch about who we’re fighting and why.

As Glenn Greenwald explains, Bush and McCain continually make misleading and incoherent statements about al-Qaeda, Shia extremists and Iran, linking them together in ways that justify continuing occupation. In recent weeks, they’ve repeatedly linked Iran to the Mahdi militia opposing the US siege of Sadr City. But as Juan Cole points out, McCain’s description of "al-Qaeda" and what would happen if the US withdrew is nonsense:

Since the Shiites are 60 percent and by now well armed and trained, and since the Sunni Arabs are only 17 percent of the population and since only about 1 percent of them perhaps supports Salafi radicalism–how can the latter hope to take over? . . .

McCain’s whole discourse on Iraq is just a typical rightwing Washington fantasy made up in order to get you to spend $15 billion a month on his friends in the military industrial complex and to get you to allow him to gut the US constitution and the Bill of Rights.

With McCain’s nonsense providing the cover (reinforced by the Pentagon’s propagandists embedded in the media), US forces are providing the critical military difference in a civil war to solidify the political and military power of the most pro-Iranian elements in Iraq — the parties of al-Maliki and his Shia allies — all of whose leaders have strong ties to Iran. But by identifying al-Sadr’s resistance fighters in Sadr City with Iran, and attributing US deaths to Iranian weapons and Iranian trained fighters, (recall Lieberman’s questions to Petraeus) Bush and McCain are unmistakably keeping the door open for a possible military strike against Iran.

Number of questions ABC’s Stephanopoulos asked McCain about this on This Week? Zero. Instead, George Will focused on attacking Obama for wanting to raise Will’s capital gains taxes. Time spent on this at last week’s debate? None. Ditto for this week’s Meet the Press, where the NBC panelists excused ABC’s performance.