By ANNA BADKHEN
San Francisco Chronicle
October 09, 2006
How can the United States leave without allowing the current Sunni-Shiite bloodletting to escalate into a Bosnia-style civil war or creating an even more fertile breeding ground for militant jihadists?
And what can it do to stop Iran - Iraq's Shiite neighbor and the most potent regional military power - from filling the vacuum when American troops leave?
With the current debate on Iraq framed between the intention of the Bush administration to "stay the course" and the demand by many Democratic lawmakers to withdraw, which President Bush has decried as "cut and run," is there any middle ground?
Many Iraq experts outside the government agree that the nation needs a more nuanced exit strategy, but they cannot agree on how to go about it.
"We're choosing between bad and worse," said Shibley Telhami, an expert on the Middle East at the University of Maryland.
The Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan panel charged by Congress with reviewing Iraq policies, is expected to articulate new choices and call for changes in strategy. James Baker, the former secretary of state who is co-chairing the panel, said Sunday that those recommendations will probably be issued after the fall elections.
"Our commission believes that there are alternatives between the stated alternatives ... of stay-the-course and cut-and-run," he said on ABC's "This Week."
Some say the solution is to start withdrawing American troops, now nearly 150,000 strong, from major Iraqi cities, where they are easy targets for sectarian militias and Sunni insurgents, and concentrating them instead along Iraq's borders and in the more U.S.-friendly Kurdish north. About a third of them are now stationed in Baghdad, where they come under daily attacks as they try to aid the Iraqi government's so-far-unsuccessful effort to stabilize the capital.
"We've inserted ourselves in the main cities, and we've put most of our facilities into main areas where it's hard for us to stand on the sidelines, and it's also difficult for us not to get involved in the low-level civil war that already has begun," said National Interest magazine editor Nicholas Gvosdev, who advocates pulling U.S. forces to Iraq's borders.
Gvosdev recommends sending National Guard units home immediately and drawing down the number of regular forces in Iraq. Stationing the troops along Iraq's borders would prevent neighboring powers from sending arms and fighters into Iraq, he said.
Zachary Shore, a professor of national security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, said the troops should be moved to northern Iraq instead. This strategy would allow the United States to continue training Iraqi forces, while at the same time helping build up the infrastructure in the relatively successful, quasi-independent Kurdish region, he said.
Removing American troops from most of Iraq could open the way for Iran, warned George Friedman, founder and chief executive of Strategic Forecasting, a private security consulting group in Texas. Iran already wields enormous influence over Iraq's Shiite militias in Baghdad and in the Shiite south, he said, and without the buffer of U.S. troops, it could expand its reach to the borders of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, essentially taking control of Persian Gulf oil.
"Withdrawal essentially creates Iranian hegemony. The Iranians are far and away the most powerful regional power and will be in a position to dominate the region if the U.S. goes away" and dictate the price of oil, Friedman said.
Peter Galbraith, a former U.S. ambassador to Croatia who helped negotiate an end to the Muslim-Croat conflict, dismissed Friedman's concerns.
"A U.S. withdrawal from Iraq will not increase Iran's influence because we have already turned much of the country over to the Iranians," said Galbraith, now an expert on Iraq at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation in Washington.
Galbraith advocates splitting Iraq along ethnic and religious lines, creating three independent states: a Kurdish north, a Shiite Arab south, and a largely Sunni Arab central Iraq.
This so-called three-state solution would be a natural continuation of a divide that "has already happened on the ground," said Galbraith. If the United States were to encourage Iraq to adopt it, "we should pull troops out of the southern part of Iraq tomorrow and then fairly rapidly from Baghdad," where "we're not actually doing anything to contain civil war," he said.
The United States should then encourage Iraq's Sunnis to create their own security force to defend themselves from Shiite militias and radical Sunni jihadists, said Galbraith.
But John Pike, who heads the GlobalSecurity.org military think tank in Washington, said such a solution would not work in central Iraq, because it is not religiously or ethnically homogeneous. For example, Baghdad, home to about one-fourth of Iraq's population, has an almost even number of Shiite and Sunni Arabs. Christians, ethnic Kurds and Turkomans also live in the capital.
"Any way you draw the border, you'll have an enormous number of people who will be on the wrong side," Pike said.
Michael O'Hanlon, an Iraq expert at the Brookings Institution, said that leaving Iraq to disintegrate into "Bosnia-style ethnic cleansing" would further damage Washington's already frayed image in the Middle East.
"Leaving aside the moral issue, if Iraq explodes into a civil war, you make a mockery of the goal of trying to help Muslims, and that makes it hard to convince Muslims around the world that we're trying to be their friends," he said. "You're breeding more international anger."
Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.shns.com
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