A new report by an independent policy and research organization says Iraq is rapidly descending into an all-out civil war and urges U.S. officials to begin planning how to contain such a conflict to avoid what the authors call a catastrophe in the Middle East. The report, written by security and regional specialists at the Brookings Institution, says such a war will lead to a humanitarian tragedy in Iraq and has the potential to destabilize neighboring countries. VOA correspondent Meredith Buel has more in this background report from Washington.
The report's authors say President Bush's new strategy to send more than 20,000 additional troops to Iraq is what they call a last-chance effort to quell the fighting and jumpstart a process of reconciliation and economic reconstruction.
A co-author of the report, Kenneth Pollack, a senior analyst of Middle East policy at the Brookings Institution, says U.S. and Iraqi officials need to prepare for what the report calls an irrevocable slide into civil war. "All-out civil war in Iraq would be a tragedy, but allowing the instability from an all-out civil war in Iraq to spread beyond it could be a catastrophe," he said.
The report is the result of a year-long study, which examined civil wars in places like Afghanistan, Lebanon and the former Yugoslavia, to see if lessons can be learned to minimize what the authors call the spillover from a potential large-scale civil war in Iraq.
If there is a total collapse in Iraq the report estimates that hundreds of thousands of Iraqis will die, millions of refugees will flee the fighting, a new breeding ground for terrorists will be created, and American influence in the Middle East will be "drastically diminished."
Dan Byman, a co-author of the report and the director of Georgetown University's Security Studies Program, says the United States has a unique responsibility if such a dire situation does occur. "The humanitarian consequences are staggering and they are even more painful I would argue because this was initiated, these problems began, because of the U.S. invasion. I think in American eyes, to say nothing of the eyes of the world, or the region or Iraq, this is a problem created by the United States and as a result the United States has a special responsibility," he said.
If there is an all-out civil war the report recommends that U.S. troops pullback from Iraqi population centers, and refocus American efforts from preventing the conflict to containing it.
The authors recommend setting up safe havens along Iraq's borders to protect refugees and limit the flow of terrorists and foreign fighters trying to enter the country.
Analyst Kenneth Pollack says the U.S. should not completely withdraw its troops from the country. "If the president's plan fails I do not see how we stay. But if we walk away from it, we could wind up with civil war spreading beyond Iraq's borders, or civil war in Iraq devolving into a massive regional war, either of which could destabilize the region, threaten the world's oil supplies and cause havoc in any number of other ways," he said.
The authors say their strategy requires a continued large-scale U.S. military commitment, which they concede runs counter to growing American opposition to the war.
Dan Byman predicts the conflict will influence American foreign policy for many years to come. "The troubles we are experiencing in Iraq are going to have such a profound affect that U.S. policymakers of any [political] party, of any administration, are going to be dealing with this, we believe for at least the next 10 years, perhaps as the primary driver of U.S. policy in the region, whether we like it or not," he said.
The report concludes that trying to contain the spillover from an all-out civil war in Iraq will be costly, painful and bloody. It says that ignoring the possibility and failing to plan for such a scenario will make the conflict even worse.