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(HOST) This morning, commentator Barrie Dunsmore tells us about the similarities between what’s happening in Iraq today and a period of American history.

(DUNSMORE) In the days right after the fall of Baghdad, when the Iraqi insurgents began to attack U. S. forces, the Bush administration and its supporters minimized the resistance. They told us this was just like the situation in Germany right after World War II, when the remnants of Hitler’s Nazis failed in their last gasp attempt to hold on to power.

But last week in the Washington Post, I read a credible and highly original analogy I feel compelled to share. David Ignatius is a regular columnist for the Post. He’s a former executive editor of the respected Paris-based International Herald Tribune. With some qualifications, Ignatius supported the war in Iraq – though, like the rest of us, he worries now about the final outcome.

Here is a summary of what he wrote:

Ignatius recently joined a group of Pentagon officials on a guided tour of the battlefields of Gettysburg. It was part of a conference on how to rebuild societies rather than defeat them militarily, with the focus on post-war reconstruction in Iraq.

After the tour, historian James McPherson led a discussion about what happened when the Civil War ended. That war, like the invasion of Iraq, was a war of transformation in which the victors hoped to reshape the political culture of the vanquished.

But, as in Iraq, the reconstruction of the South faced daunting obstacles. The occupying Union army was harassed by an insurgency that combined die-hard remnants of the old plantation owners with irregular guerrillas. The Union was unprepared for this. Its occupation army was too small and its local allies often corrupt.

Radicals in the North wanted to break the old slave-holding aristocracy and remake the South into a version of New England. President Andrew Johnson would have no part of that. Still, for a while it seemed that reconstruction might work.

However, the insurgency was potent and took more than a thousand lives. And the poison that destroyed reconstruction was racial hatred. The Southern white elite managed to convince poor whites that newly freed blacks were their enemies, not potential allies. Finally, after a dozen years, the North gave up and withdrew its troops of occupation. So those who were defeated in war ended up winning the peace – thus condemning the South to decades more of officially sanctioned racism.

The analogy to Iraq today is that the Sunni and Shiite Moslem divide is poisoning the opportunities created by the war, and those religious hatreds may destroy attempts to build genuinely democratic institutions.

Unfortunately, there’s a lesson here for the insurgents, too. If you remain ruthless enough, you may well prevail. But, as Ignatius concludes, the failure of reconstruction led to a social and economic disaster in the South that lasted nearly a century – and that’s a history nobody should want to repeat.

This is Barrie Dunsmore.

Barrie Dunsmore is a veteran diplomatic and foreign correspondent for ABC News, now living in Charlotte.

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