The situation in Iraq is looking increasingly like the one that prevailed in Lebanon during its prolonged civil war. Insurgent violence — which subsided temporarily after the birth of a transitional government in late April — has again increased in recent days. As fighting has intensified between U.S.-British forces and militants, suicide bombings have escalated, killing hundreds of civilians.

The political equation in Iraq remains dangerously unstable. The new government, represented mainly by Shiites and Kurds who suffered under Saddam Hussein, has yet to embrace the Sunni minority, which dominated the country during his regime. Unable, or unwilling, to participate in the political process, insurgents have attacked American and British forces in an attempt to discredit the Shiite-led administration of Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jafaari.

For the Iraqi government to function, the insurgency — the main source of insecurity — must be eliminated. That goal, however, still seems distant amid seemingly endless fighting, which has caused heavy casualties on both sides.

In a recent major offensive, for instance, the U.S. military reportedly killed about 100 insurgents in western Anbar Province, near the Syrian border. In the first 10 days after the inauguration of the new government on April 28, more than 300 civilians were killed and wounded.

The reality is that the United States has yet to achieve a genuine military success in Iraq, which is an essential prerequisite to political stability in that country. Without a decisive victory by U.S. and British forces, the new government will remain unstable. As long as it remains so, the anti-American and antigovernment insurgency will continue.

Indeed, Iraq appears headed for a vicious circle of military and political conflict. The test for the U.S. administration of President George W. Bush is to prevent the “Lebanonization” of Iraq, or the slide into a Lebanon-style civil war. The challenge can be met only by stabilizing the military and political situation.

It is not clear how the Iraqi situation will develop in coming months. (If everything goes well, a popularly elected government will be established under a new constitution at yearend). One thing seems clear: The U.S., having defeated the Taliban and Hussein regimes, is involved in a new kind of war in which distinctions between friend and foe are fuzzy and lines of allegiance blurred.

In other words, America may be getting drawn into a Middle-East quicksand of ethnic and religious rivalries — a major contributor to Lebanon’s civil war, which left the country in tatters. In that kind of free-for-all, anything can happen. The mistaken shooting by U.S. troops, in March, of an Italian intelligence officer who had just secured the release of an Italian journalist from militant abductors suggests that Iraq may be going the way of Lebanon.

The accident demonstrated the trickiness of the Iraqi security situation. It also placed the U.S. military in an embarrassing position because Italy, along with Britain, is a close U.S. ally in Iraq. Italians are justifiably angry at the shooting, but punishing an inexperienced soldier for the accidental shooting is considered unlikely because it would surely hurt the morale of other soldiers on the ground.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, while calling the incident “unfortunate,” has made it clear that Italy will not unilaterally withdraw its troops from just because a joint panel of U.S. and Italian investigators has failed to reach agreement. President George W. Bush, in a telephone call to Berlusconi, has expressed his condolences for the tragedy. Thus the Italian-American alliance in Iraq remains essentially unchanged.

Among the latest incidents to highlight the continued chaos in Iraq is the abduction last week of a Japanese security specialist, Mr. Akihiko Saito, an employee of the Cyprus-based British firm Hart Security. The Ansar-al-Sunnah Army, which claimed to have captured him near Hit in western Iraq, is believed to be an anti-American militant group aiming to marginalize the new Iraqi government. Mr. Saito, who was identified on the group’s Web site, is known as a former member of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces and the French Foreign Legion.

Iraq has taken bold steps toward democracy since the fall of the Hussein regime, but its future remains uncertain at best. Two things hold the key to stability. One is the leadership of the transitional government in forging the political unity of the Iraqi nation. The other is the ability of U.S.-led forces to root out insurgents who seek to neutralize the new government.

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