Monday, October 24, 2005


By John Aloysius Farrell
Denver Post Washington Bureau Chief

Washington - President Bush's goal of creating a united, peaceful Iraq that will serve as a beacon of democracy in the Middle East could take as long as a decade and cost thousands more Iraqi and American lives, administration officials say.

A more modest objective is emerging for the near term, in which the security forces of an Iraq partitioned along ethnic and religious lines take over the war against a stubborn insurgency, allowing the United States to withdraw its combat forces.

This scenario would leave a weakened central state apportioned into Kurdish, Sunni and Shiite districts and bears its own risk: the possibility of a civil war that could spread into region- wide conflicts, analysts and government officials say.

"When you talk about the longer-term goal of a stable, democratic, multiethnic, unitary Iraq, that's going to take a long time," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told a Senate committee last week.

"The short-term goal is to make Iraqi forces capable enough of holding their own territory against insurgents so that there is not ... a threat to the political stability of the Iraqi regime," Rice said.

In an exchange with Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., Rice declined to quarrel with his definition of the short-term scenario as "a Kurdish north, a Shia (or Shiite) south and a disgruntled Sunni center that constituted a loose federation and was not engaged in all-out civil war but wasn't practicing the sort of democracy we enjoy here in the United States."

"It's not conceivable that the Sunnis and the Shias are going to overcome hundreds of years of differences within a matter of a couple of years," Rice said later.

Her remarks contrasted with the rosy forecasts of postwar democracy made by the administration before the U.S. invasion on March 20, 2003.

Gen. George Casey, commander of coalition forces in Iraq, has warned the Senate in public and classified briefings in recent weeks that "the average counterinsurgency in the 20th century has lasted nine years."

Said Casey: "There's no reason that we should believe that the insurgency in Iraq will take any less time."

"We just signed up for nine years," one senator said to another as they left the closed-door briefing.

At her own Senate hearing last week, Rice declined the opportunity to predict that U.S. troops will be withdrawn from Iraq within 10 years.

The U.S. is caught in a vise, however. American commanders believe that their massive military presence is having a counterproductive effect, fueling the insurgency and inhibiting the development of national institutions in Iraq.

"Increased coalition presence feeds the notion of occupation. It contributes to the dependency of Iraqi security forces on the coalition," Casey said. "It extends the amount of time that it will take for Iraqi security forces to become self-reliant. And it exposes more coalition forces to attacks."

"Army ... in bad shape"

Military leaders also are concerned about the effect of the war on morale, recruiting, equipment - and public support.

"My army right now is truly in bad shape," says retired Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, who served as chief of staff to former Secretary of State Colin Powell. "Problems are brewing."

And so the U.S. is furiously trying, and with some success, to train Iraqi soldiers and police in the hope of withdrawing some American troops next year. At the same time, the United States is prodding Iraqi leaders to build a government that can lure alienated Sunnis away from violence.

"The Iraqis have consistently surprised us at every milestone," said Michael Rubin, an analyst at the American Enterprise Institute and supporter of the U.S. intervention.

"If we look at the bigger picture, what Iraq has now ... (is) very peaceful debates over the constitution - very, very passionate debates, very emotional debates, but nonetheless largely peaceful," Rubin said.

Yet U.S. officials can't even say if last weekend's referendum on a new constitution was a success because the alienated Sunni minority participated in the political process or a failure because the Sunnis overwhelmingly voted to reject the charter.

"We've looked for the constitution to be a national compact," Casey said. "The perception now is that it's not, particularly among the Sunni."

Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, warned that "the Kurds and the Shiites, who have dominated the drafting of the constitution, have opted for a weak central government structure that maximizes their autonomy in the regions where they predominate."

"Most Sunnis reject such an arrangement as leaving them with few resources and little power," Lugar said. "These perceived inequities fuel the insurgency by Sunni rejectionists and threaten civil conflicts which could mean the permanent division of Iraq."

"It's a terrible situation," said Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations. "The insurgents cannot win the war militarily as long as the U.S. stays there in force. And we can't win the war ... without there being a real political deal ... and that is getting unlikely."

If Iraq dissolves, or slides into civil war, it would be difficult for its Middle East neighbors - coveting Iraqi oil and fearing that violence might spread to their own countries - to refrain from intervening.

"What could tear things apart is a strong civil war," said Anthony Cordesman, a Middle East expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Under that scenario, there is a "natural tendency" for migration of ethnic groups into homogeneous regions "and ethnic cleansing," he said.

Jon Alterman, a colleague at the center, said: "There is going to be regional involvement if an Iraqi civil war breaks out. ... The downsides of this could be absolutely catastrophic."

Said Wilkerson: "I don't have too much problem envisioning the Turks taking over at least the top third of Iraq were we to leave a mess. I don't have a problem with (envisioning) the Syrians then becoming involved, the Iranians becoming involved."

"A de facto civil war"

Iraq's economy remains in shambles, its government pla gued by inefficiency and misfeasance, and its people subject to assassination, kidnapping, bombings and other acts of violence.

"National elections and elite political deals won't lead to stability ... as long as average Iraqis can't turn on the lights, can't drink the water, can't step out of their homes without stepping into raw sewage and can't let their daughters leave the house for fear of being kidnapped," said Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee.

"We now have a de facto civil war, but we don't call it that. We pretend it isn't a civil war. We cover it up in all kinds of other ways," said Qubad Talabany, the representative of Iraq's Kurdish region to the U.S.

Even if the Iraqis hold successful parliamentary elections in December and sink the roots of a true democracy, the Sunni rebellion could go on for years.

"We cannot assume that the establishment of democratic institutions in Iraq in the short term will yield a corresponding diminishment of the insurgency," Lugar said.

American military and civilian leaders offer few guarantees and acknowledge that the forces tearing at Iraq may force U.S. troops to stay in order to prevent civil war.

The new constitution, which reserves many powers for ethnic- and sectarian-dominated regions, may add to the destructive forces.

"To devolve power so quickly and so drastically from an already weak central government to regions that have no capacity except what is provided by militias is a recipe for even greater chaos," said Rend Rahim, a former Iraqi ambassador to the U.S.

But the alternative, U.S. generals say, is even worse: to one day return and fight a cataclysmic war to save the region's oil fields and U.S. allies from the forces of Islamic extremism.

"The implications of allowing the region to become dominated by the ideology of al-Qaeda are the same as the implication in the years previous to World War II of allowing fascism to become the ideology of Germany," said Gen. John Abizaid, chief of U.S. Central Command. "It will lead to a big war that none of us can stand."

"If we leave precipitously, ... we will (have to) mobilize the nation, put 5 million men and women under arms and go back and take the Middle East within a decade," Wilkerson said.

On this point, Democratic critics of the Bush administration's handling of the war agree.

"We need to succeed in Iraq. If we don't, we will create a snake pit ... of terrorists," said Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri, ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee.

The sobering picture of Iraq presented by U.S. officials over the past three weeks is itself a gamble.

With popular support for the war at a low in public opinion polls, military and civilian leaders are trying to reduce expectations and prepare Americans for a long and costly ordeal, while not fueling arguments for an immediate troop withdrawal.

The war's supporters, however, fear that domestic political pressures are pushing the Bush administration toward premature concessions and abandonment of Iraqi democrats.

The Iraqi constitution, "perhaps the most important document to come out of the modern Middle East, has been reduced to a benchmark on America's way out the door," said Danielle Pletka, an analyst at the American Enterprise Institute.

"We were going to have a federal system that might have been inclusive and democratic," said Kanan Makiya, a leader among the Iraqi expatriates who opposed Saddam Hussein.

"We are now inexorably moving, it seems to me, towards a tripartite federal structure that includes Kurdish, Shiite and Sunni regions ... perhaps even dealing a death blow to the idea of Iraq."


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