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US Continues Debate Over Iraq Troop Withdrawal

Calls for some kind of timetable for a U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq have set off new debate both in the United States and Iraq. There are questions about the effect any abrupt pullout might have in Iraq.

As debate over Iraq intensifies, so do concerns about the strength of Iraq's fledgling political and military institutions.

Key events are on the horizon in the coming months, starting with elections on December 15. Within the next year, Iraq will see the formation of a new government, the amending of the constitution by the new parliament and a referendum on that constitution.

Iraq's Ambassador to the United Nations, Samir Sumaidaie, says the key question is whether his country's new institutions will be strong enough to hold together in the face of sectarian and ethnic pressures.

"The concern now has to be, have we left enough power in the central government to keep the country together? It's fine talking about developing a country, but first you have to have a country," he said. "And to ensure that we will have a country, we need to keep it together and we need to have sufficient forces and binds and tools - constitutional tools - to keep that country together. And that has to be to empower central government - not to oppress the regions but to have enough strength and authority to keep the country together."

The Bush administration has resisted calls for a timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq. However, a Washington Post newspaper report published Wednesday says U.S. military officials are contemplating a partial drawdown in troop strength next year as more Iraqi security forces are equipped and trained.

Speaking recently at the annual conference of the Middle East Institute in Washington, Mr. Sumaidaie said a premature withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq would be disastrous.

"Let's not make any mistakes: a premature pullout by the Americans or by the Multinational Forces from Iraq would now precipitate a catastrophe. Iraq would descend into chaos," he said. "It would become a failed state. Civil war would almost be a given. It would be the incubator and the breeding ground for multitudes of terrorists who will plague our world. This is too awful to be contemplated."

Jost Hiltermann, the Jordan-based director for the International Crisis Group, agrees that any early withdrawal would fracture Iraq. Yet, he adds in a telephone interview, there should be some clear signposts about the U.S. exit strategy.

"A precipitous withdrawal would bring civil war much quicker than it would otherwise come," he said. "And so I think a precipitous withdrawal should be avoided. Yet, some sense that American forces are planning to withdraw over time as sustainable Iraqi forces are stood up should be on the agenda."

Phebe Marr, an Iraq analyst at the U.S. Institute for Peace, warns against setting arbitrary deadlines for Iraq and counsels patience in the United States for Iraq.

"The reconstruction of Iraq, this healing process, is going to be long," she said. "If we pull out of Iraq prematurely or push it into unrealistic timelines like that of the constitution, Iraq could fail. If you don't like Iraq and what you see now, just wait if you pull out, because it could get much worse. This is not for the sprinter but for the long-distance runner."

Mr. Sumaidaie argues that secular institutions should be encouraged to counter radical Islamist elements in politics. But Ms. Marr says secular political parties are poorly organized and have so far not drawn mass support among Iraqis.