The Bush administration led us to believe that capturing Saddam Hussein, last summer’s nominal transfer of power from the U.S. occupation authority to the Iraqi interim government, and the more recent U.S. invasion of Falluja would each in turn quell the insurgency. Yet despite all of these “accomplishments,” the rebellion has intensified. Now the administration is hoping that the Iraqi election—likely to result in meager representation for the Sunnis in the assembly that will write a new constitution—will lessen the insurgency. That naïve hope should be added to the long list of the administration’s overly optimistic projections for Iraq.

So what can the United States do to dampen the insurgency and avoid a potential civil war? Something that the Bush administration and the Washington foreign policy establishment have avoided like the plague: rapid U.S. troop withdrawal and genuine and complete self-determination for Iraqis.

Iraqi self-determination would probably result in the partitioning of Iraq or at least the creation of a loose confederation in which the Kurds, Sunni and Shi’a would autonomously govern their own affairs. Had the Clinton administration allowed the sensible partitioning of multi-ethnic Bosnia, the United States and other nations would probably not have been saddled with the task of keeping the peace in this continuing tinderbox nine years after the Dayton Accords were signed. If the peacekeepers withdrew today, the fighting among Bosnia’s ethnic groups would probably resume.

By adopting self-determination for Iraqis, the administration would have to give up its fantasy that the artificial state of Iraq should be whole and democratic in the western sense. Self-determination would deal with the root causes of the insurgency and give the guerrilla groups some incentive to stop fighting and to refrain from causing a civil war.

The Sunni guerrillas are fighting to repel a foreign invader and prevent paybacks from its elected Shi’ite government. The Shi’a, who make up 60 percent of the Iraqi population, have suffered years of oppression under the Sunni minority, and would likely win any Iraq-wide election.

Even the Kurds, currently the most friendly minority group to the United States, may turn surly if they are not allowed to keep at least the autonomy that they have enjoyed for the last 13 years. The American Revolution started when King George attempted to take away traditional English rights from the American colonists. Taking away freedom is always more dangerous than never granting it in the first place.

If the United States withdrew its forces and each group was allowed to govern itself in its own country or autonomous region, the incentives for violence against the foreign invader and against other Iraqi groups would rapidly decline. The Sunnis would no longer fight the invader or be apprehensive about paybacks from the Shi’a. The Kurds would keep the autonomy that they have had for more than a decade. In short, a much weakened or nonexistent central government—the formidable institution in Iraqi history that has been used by one group to oppress the others—would lessen the chance that the various groups would fight to control it. Each group could govern its own territory and convert its own militias into regional security forces.

There are downsides to such an outcome. First, the United States might have to live with governments that do not quite fit the Western democratic model. Second, Turkey would not be happy about the influence that Kurdish autonomy or sovereignty would have on its own restive Kurdish minority. However, Turkey has tolerated de facto Kurdish self-determination in northern Iraq for more than a decade and would probably not invade an independent or autonomous Kurdistan for fear of torpedoing its much-desired entry into the European Union. Third, the Iraqi Shi’a could be co-opted by Shi’ite Iran. Fears of that outcome have declined as Iraq’s Arab Shi’a have shown independence from their Persian brethren and differing views on the separation of church and state. Because the holiest shrines of Shi’ite Islam are in Iraq, not Iran, Iraqi clerics have as much or more prestige than their Iranian counterparts--thus lessening the religious sway that Iran would have over Shi’ite Iraq.

Allowing Iraqis rapid and complete self-determination is not a panacea. But this solution does allow the Bush administration the only viable way to declare victory and extricate itself from the Iraqi tar baby, while at the same time offering the Iraqis the best chance to have a peaceful and prosperous future.