By Hans Dahne

Washington - The US army will soon mark a milestone that the commander in chief, US President George W Bush, hardly anticipated.

On Sunday, the US will mark its 1,347th day in Iraq - the same amount of time the United States fought Germany and Japan in World War II.

With one of the worst 24-hour periods of carnage since the US-led invasion in 2003 - more than 170 people were killed from Thursday to Friday - Washington has no quick solution in mind.

To the contrary, US government officials and military leaders, including General John Abizaid, the top commander of US forces in the Middle East, warn of failure and civil war if the murdering militia and death squads are not quickly brought under control.

The Pentagon estimates there are at least 23 serious militia in Iraq. The biggest danger, US military experts say, is the Mahdi Army, the militia of the young Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

Many are shaking fingers at the Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and the spiritual leader of the Iraqi Shiites, Grand Ayatollah Ali Husseini al-Sistani.

Washington is increasingly convinced that the two leaders are not tough enough on the militia, especially the Shiites. Al-Maliki must not only say but also do the right things, the Iraq coordinator in the US State Department, David Satterfield, recently told Congress.

US commentators like the Washington Post`s Colbert King point out that Sistani and his followers owe a debt of gratitude to the US for freeing them from oppression under Saddam Hussein.

The US Army`s current strategy looks like this: The military offensive in Baghdad, which has ended neither violence or chaos since August, should continue another four to six months. Abizaid claims there have been successes in successful targeting of the Shiite death squads. Abizaid wants to build the Iraqi army into a 320,000-strong force that can prove more trustworthy than the militia in providing security. In the eyes of the US army, the problem is less the training of Iraqi soldiers than it is cultivating loyalty to them.

Why concentrate on Baghdad?, the influential Republican Senator and presidential hopeful John McCain wants to know. The Vietnam veteran and one-time prisoner of war believes the US Army should concentrate on Sunni-dominated regions of unrest to bring Baghdad under control.

The move would show the Shia "that they don`t need the Mahdi Army in order to protect themselves from Sunni attacks, that that`s probably the best tactical move that we could make," McCain said recently.

McCain also wants to boost the 145,000 US troop numbers by 20,000. Military commentators disagree. They believe that at least another 500,000 to 1 million soldiers are necessary to help the country avoid civil war.

In recent testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Satterfield painted a gloomy image.

If sectarian violence is not dealt with, "then indeed, Iraqi national identity will erode, and hope for a united Iraq, a peaceful, stable Iraq, will over time diminish," Satterfield said.

The rapid expansion of the militia - right under the nose of American forces - is driven by two factors, Satterfield said. On the one hand, many Iraqis believe the militia offer them protection. On the other hand, the militia are exploiting a security vacuum for political power, criminal interests and religious expansion.

Satterfield advocates a political solution, with national reconciliation, equal distribution of oil profits among the various sects and job creation.

In the eyes of Democratic Senator Carl Levin - who will oversee the Senate`s military panel starting in January - the US should threaten the Iraqi leadership with withdrawal if they fail to take steps against the militia.

"America has given the Iraqi people the opportunity to build a new nation at the cost of nearly 3,000 American lives and over 20,000 wounded," he told the Senate recently. "We cannot save the Iraqis from themselves."

Levin noted that "we are three and one-half years into a conflict which has already lasted longer than the Korean conflict and almost as long as World War II."

"We should put the responsibility for Iraq`s future squarely where it belongs: on the Iraqis," he said.

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