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Charting a Course in Iraq

After a series of reports this month submitted to the U.S. Congress on the military and political progress in Iraq, a national debate is intensifying over how to move forward and bring peace to that war torn country.

The top U.S. military commander in Iraq, Army General David Petraeus, says security has improved in many parts of the country since U.S. troop levels were increased by about 30,000 earlier this year.

Although political progress on a national level has been less than expected, President Bush has endorsed the General's recommendation to gradually withdraw the surge force as more progress is achieved during the next six months.

With roughly 160,000 U.S. troops now in Iraq, the White House and many experts -- including Kirk Johnson, a former advisor to the U.S. ambassador to Iraq -- warn that security gains would be reversed if American forces left too soon. "Iraq would descend into violence with civilian casualties possibly exceeding the high rates seen last December and January. There obviously would be significant displacements, probably ethnic cleansing within a variety of neighborhoods, including a substantial refugee crisis that would spill over, probably to neighboring countries," says Johnson.

"There are too many people concerned not only in Iraq and the U.S. government, but also in the international community, for the unknown consequences of a sudden American withdrawal," says retired U.S. Marine Corps Lieutenant General Bernard Trainor. "I don't think anybody, including the Iranians or the Saudis, are really interested in seeing the consequences of a withdrawal and a civil war because with something like that, nobody knows exactly how it is going to spin out. This [i.e., the current situation] at least is controllable and while the casualties that occur not only to our forces, but most importantly to the Iraqis themselves are most undesirable, at least the thing has not spun completely out of control."

Obstacles to Peace

In his recent report to congress, General Petraeus noted that Shia militias, Iranian-supported extremists and al-Qaida in Iraq have suffered setbacks in recent months. But Harvard University's Stephen Walt contends that the United States' ability to shape events in Iraq is diminishing.

"With the passage of time, the United States, like any other occupying power usually, has less and less capacity to really dictate events on the ground. And I think we are seeing that as our own troops become tired, as the insurgency becomes more resilient and as more groups in Iraq begin competing for power, the ability of people in Washington or people in the 'Green Zone' [i.e., the coalition fortified portion of Baghdad] to determine what's going to happen there gets less and less," says Walt.

Meanwhile, many analysts say some of Iraq's neighbors will intensify their efforts to destabilize the situation. Among them is Middle East scholar Fawaz Gerges at Sarah Lawrence College in New York. "I fear that the next few months are going to be very bloody because not only insurgents, not only al-Qaida, but also Iran and Syria are going to do their best to show the Bush administration that the situation in Iraq cannot be tamed unless their vital interests are taken into account," says Gerges. "Stability in Iraq requires engaging not only all Iraqi communities, but also seriously engaging Iraq's neighbors -- not just Saudi Arabia and Turkey, but in particular Iran and Syria -- who have played a decisive role in basically undermining the American project [in Iraq] in the last four years."

Consequences of a Divided Iraq

Political reconciliation was one of the main goals of the U.S. troop surge in Iraq. And many analysts warn of the consequences of an Iraq partitioned along ethnic and religious lines with autonomous Sunni, Shi'ite and Kurdish regions.

"A de facto partition of Iraq would be disastrous," says Middle East analyst, Fawaz Gerges. "It would be disastrous for Iraq; it would be disastrous for regional stability. And it would be disastrous for international security and peace. A de facto partitioning of Iraq basically would mean multiple civil wars in Iraq and real intervention by Iraq's neighbors in its internal affairs."

But noting the slow progress in Iraq, political scientist William Quandt of the University of Virginia says much of the country is already fragmented. "Increasingly, one should think about Iraq not as a unified state but as a series of city states -- each with its own warlords with its own military cliques and militias and so forth. And if you look at Basra [in the south], there is one leadership group there. If you look at Baghdad, it's kind of an unresolved struggle -- neighborhood by neighborhood. Al-Anbar [province in the west] is coming under the control of different tribal groups. Mosul [in the north] has its own distinct leadership, and so forth."

Eventual Peace?

But Quandt compares the sectarian strife in Iraq to the civil war in Lebanon and says the fighting in Iraq could eventually end in a political settlement. "The analogy would be that after a few more years, hopefully not another ten, for this near civil war playing itself out. The political and military lines will have been drawn and the power brokers would say, 'Enough is enough. Let's make a deal on some kind of new political compact,' which is what the Lebanese warlords did in 1989. And it more or less brought the violence to an end."

Public opinion polls show that Americans are divided over the course the United States should take in Iraq. While about 60% of the nation does not support President Bush's war strategy and wants a time table for a complete troop pullout, most Americans do not favor an immediate withdrawal from Iraq for fear of leaving the country in chaos. Meanwhile, Congress will again review U.S. progress in Iraq in about six months when General Petraeus is scheduled to make his next report.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.

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    Victor Morales

    Victor Morales is Senior Analyst for the Voice of America, where he has reported on U.S. and international affairs for more than two decades.  He is the former head of VOA’s Focus New Analysis Unit and VOA Learning English.  He also hosted the agency’s premier public affairs talk shows, Encounter and Press Conference, USA, and anchored the leading English news program, VOA News Now.