I suspect there have been two defining moments in America's long and painful education that a faraway country called Iraq never consisted simply of 27 million people yearning to be free from a dictator called Saddam Hussein. The first was in Riyadh on 25 November 2006, when King Abdullah, the oil-trading chum of the United States, last seen in Texas in April 2005 holding hands with George W Bush, "read the riot act" to Dick Cheney. He told Cheney that if US forces were to be pulled out of Iraq, Saudi Arabia would have no choice but to support the Sunni minority in Iraq. Meaning Saddam Hussein's thugs? Exactly, Cheney.
The second crucial turning point came just a few days ago, when a hitherto secret National Intelligence Estimates report on Iraq - the first such assessment since 2004, with input from the CIA, Defence Intelligence Agency and various other US spy organisations - was published quietly on a Friday when news in America was dominated by storms that had devastated parts of central Florida. The NIE foresaw the possibility of "extreme ethno-sectarian violence with debilitating intra-group clashes", leading to a "rapid deterioration with grave humanitarian, political and security consequences".
Thus, at long last, the neoconservative simplicities of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and co were shot away once and for all. "I think that the words 'civil war' oversimplify a very complex situation in Iraq," conceded Robert Gates, Rumsfeld's successor as defence secretary, in response. "I believe that there are essentially four wars going on in Iraq. One is Shia on Shia . . . the second is sectarian conflict . . . third is the insurgency . . . and fourth is al-Qaeda." Stephen Hadley, Bush's increasingly worried national security adviser, chimed in: "We need to get across the complexities of the situation we face in Iraq . . . and simple labels don't do that."
So now we know. But when it comes to Sunnis and Shias, alas, the US has a disastrous history of switching sides whenever short-term pragmatism dictates it. For example, the Reagan administration's response to the 1979 taking of 66 US marines and diplomats as hostages in Iran on the orders of the Shia cleric Ayatollah Khomeini was to bolster Khomeini's old enemy in Baghdad, the secular Sunni Saddam Hussein.
I have some brief footage from 1983 of Donald Rumsfeld, then Reagan's special envoy to the Middle East, shaking hands with Saddam. Anybody who doubts which side the US was on during the 1980-88 Iraq-Iran war should read a recently declassified 1983 NIE report. It was both succinct and proph etic: "The current [Saddam] regime is likely to pursue policies more favourable to the United States than any successor regime . . . Saddam Husayn's [sic] removal could usher in an extended period of instability in Baghdad . . . any post-Saddam regime is almost certain to fall into factional fighting."
US undercover forces
Yet, exactly two decades later, Rumsfeld was spearheading the removal of Saddam, putting the Shia majority of Iraq back into the ascendancy and opening the door to Iranian expansionism. Iran, with a population of 69 million - 89 per cent of it Shia - became, overnight, a potentially far graver adversary of the United States than Iraq ever was. Last month, US troops raided an Iranian government liaison office in the Kurdish town of Irbil in Iraq, managing to enrage Kurds and Shias simultaneously. I am told that US undercover special forces are now already inside Iran, increasing the possibility of US military action against the Iranians.
No, Rummy and co never realised just how complicated this damned Shia-Sunni business really is. Goddamit, they're even feuding in places like Michigan and New Jersey and break- ing the windows of each other's mosques! Current US foreign policy is to unite the latest "allies" such as Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, as well as Israel, against what Washington sees as the increasingly threatening coalition of Shias from Iran, Syria and Hezbollah with the Sunnis of Hamas - all of whom, of course, have been emboldened by the removal of Saddam. It's still all too much for the US media, which are content to refer to "insurgents" in Iraq - that is, anti-American baddies - without delving into the ancient divisions of Islam.
The late and much-lamented columnist Molly Ivins, who died on 31 January, wrote on 16 January 2003: "I assume we can defeat Hussein without great cost to our side (God forgive me if that is hubris). The problem is what happens after we win. The country is 20 per cent Kurd, 20 per cent Sunni and 60 per cent Shia. Can you say, 'Horrible three-way civil war?'"
Nobody in Washington, sadly, was listening to the likes of Molly then. And now, none other than the mighty US defence secretary himself is pronouncing that the Iraq calamity has already escalated into a four-way civil war.