A new report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based research and analysis organization, paints a bleak picture of the war in Iraq, and says Americans will have to accept what it calls a high-risk, high-cost strategy in order to reverse the country's slide into civil war. VOA correspondent Meredith Buel reports from Washington.
The report's author, Anthony Cordesman, a senior military and national security analyst with the center, is a former director of intelligence assessment for the secretary of defense.
Cordesman, who has made numerous trips to Iraq, says there is no doubt the conflict there has become a civil war, and there is a critical risk the violence will get much worse in the coming months.
Cordesman says while some progress has been made in the training of Iraqi security forces, they and the central government in Baghdad are still too weak to maintain control.
"The Iraqi army and the Iraqi police, the Iraqi government, the justice system cannot function in large parts of Baghdad," he said. "They cannot function in much of the country where civil violence is escalating. The problem is not being driven so much by the militias and the local security forces, it is being driven by the lack of the alternative."
The Bush administration has rejected labeling the conflict in Iraq as a civil war and the president has said U.S. troops will not be pulled off the battlefield before the mission is complete.
Cordesman, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says while U.S.-led coalition forces have focused military efforts on Baghdad and western al-Anbar province, militias now control much of southern Iraq.
"The British have essentially been defeated in Basra," he said. "It is under the control of two loosely coordinating Shi'ite Islamist extremist groups. The southeast of Iraq has essentially come under the control of various elements, which are only loosely tied to the central government. There is a process of ethnic and sectarian cleansing which extends far beyond Baghdad."
Cordesman argues the U.S. cannot succeed in Iraq, unless Iraqis can create a more effective form of political compromise that wins the support of most Shi'ites, Sunnis and Kurds.
He estimates it will take three to five years to fully develop Iraqi security forces.
"Whatever options are chosen, we have to have a degree of realism and self-honesty that we have lacked," noted Cordesman. "We do need patience. We need to understand that whatever we do will involve high risk and high cost. The problem is, if we do not choose those options, the cost and the risk grow, they do not become less."
Cordesman says creating a stronger unity government is a high-risk option, but he says it presents the best opportunity to reverse the growing sectarian conflict.
He says Americans will have to understand it will take years of U.S. involvement before the Iraqi government is capable of running the country.
"I think this is going to be a real crisis for American society," he said. "If all we do is react to past failures by trying to find the easiest way out or some simple option we can use as at least an excuse, then we necessarily will make things far worse."
Cordesman says much of the $38 billion in foreign aid and Iraqi resources spent on reconstruction has been wasted or used in ways that have failed to develop popular confidence and support.
He says, however, more aid is needed but should be conditional on further Iraqi political compromise and conciliation.