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Exploring U.S. Options in Iraq


Top U.S. officials say Iraqi forces could take responsibility for their country's security within 18 months. But many analysts cite growing doubts among Americans and Iraqis about the U.S.-led effort.

For months many Middle East experts have been warning that Iraq has been gradually sliding toward a full-scale civil war. They argue that the United States’ policy on Iraq is at risk of failing. Answering such concerns, President Bush recently said that the U.S. goal to win in Iraq is “clear and unchanging”, but that the strategy is dynamic. “We will continue to be flexible and make every necessary change to prevail in this struggle,” said President Bush.

Initially, after the fall of Saddam Hussein, most of the violence in Iraq was the result of a Sunni insurgency against the U.S.-led coalition. However, most of the bloodshed now is a result of sectarian fighting between Sunnis and Shiites.

Chris Toensing of the Washington-based Middle East Research and Information Project says the violence has become even more fragmented. “It’s becoming a civil war with more than two sides. It’s becoming more of a war of all against all, as the division within various sectarian communities -- particularly the Shia Arab community -- comes to the fore. I don’t think that the Iraqi government has much sway in terms of controlling the overall pace and shape of events,” contends analyst Toensing.

Abduction and Torture

According to the United Nations, an average of 100 civilians are killed each day in Iraq. Human Rights Watch reports that every month, “hundreds of people are abducted, tortured and killed by what many believe are death squads” that include Iraqi government security forces. Meanwhile, October was one of the deadliest months for U.S. forces in Iraq since Saddam Hussein fell in 2003, with more than 100 Americans killed.

Many experts say all of these developments are eroding public support for the U.S. mission there. A number of public opinion surveys show that more than 60 percent of Americans have lost confidence in U.S. policy toward Iraq. There is growing discontent among Iraqis as well.

Phyllis Bennis, Middle East analyst at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, says the results of a recent Iraq poll conducted by the University of Maryland shows that a majority of Iraqis believe their lives will be better once the U.S.-led forces leave Iraq.

"Eighty-two percent of the Iraqis want an immediate timetable for withdrawal. Thirty-seven percent want the U.S. troops out immediately, meaning within six months. An additional 34 percent want the troops out within a year. So we are talking about almost three-quarters of the people in Iraq want the troops out. And sixty-one percent of Iraqis now support military attacks on U.S. troops,” says Phyllis Bennis.

Reasons for Turmoil

Some experts say that at the root of much of the turmoil are Islamist movements, which have emerged since the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime.

Juan Cole, an Iraq specialist at the University of Michigan, says “The destruction of the secular, nationalist Ba’ath government opened Iraq up to Islamist forces flooding in. So you see the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq fled back into Iraq from Iran where they had been based as exiles. The Sadr movement, which had been repressed, suddenly starts taking over entire provinces of Iraq. The Sunni Arab groups, namely Ba’athists, now disappointed by the defeat of Arab nationalism, turned to Sunni fundamentalism,” says Professor Cole.

He adds that ending the foreign military presence in Iraq could ease the situation. “I think it is more likely that the Iraqis could sort this out if they weren’t so heavily occupied. One saw in Lebanon, where in the 1970s through the 1980s the country fell apart. There were militias fighting one another all the time. And at the end of 14 years, the Saudis brought the Lebanese elite to Taif and they worked out a basic agreement with one another. It’s not perfect, but Lebanon more or less came back together after that,” says Middle East specialist Juan Cole.

But some analysts say it is too early to declare that the allied Iraq policy has failed. They note it has already succeeded in ousting Saddam Hussein and in leading Iraqis to three successful elections, which brought to power Iraq’s freely elected government.

In Search of a Regional Consensus

James Phillips, at The Heritage Foundation here in Washington says the insurgency is limited in scope. "It is true the insurgency is still rooted in the Sunni Arab areas, but the Kurdish areas are stable and progressing economically and politically. And much of the Shia south, up until recently, was doing very well. There are problems with the foreign presence. But overall, that presence helps provide security that buys time for the Iraqi government to develop its own capacity to deliver services and protect its people,” says Phillips.

Many analysts caution that a sudden foreign troop withdrawal from Iraq could result in political fragmentation, a flood of refugees and a surge in global terrorism. Larry Diamond of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University in California says that while American troops are encountering difficulties, they are not losing in Iraq.

“The American military is a force for stabilization and containment of the instability, and at the same time, paradoxically, a stimulus to instability. It’s very hard to manage these two difficult impulses. I think if the American military were simply to be withdrawn in the next three months, Iraq would descend into all-out civil war,” says Professor Diamond. He argues that an important part of stabilizing Iraq is gaining the cooperation of its neighbors. He says that all of the regional states, including Syria and Iran, have a vested interest in a stable Iraq.

“However malicious they have been in stirring the pot, however they have been assisting their own allies, militia actors and insurgent groups that may have been undermining the new political order -- none of the regional neighbors is going to gain by a descent of Iraq into an all-out civil war. Each of them has an identifiable risk from Iraq crossing that kind of threshold of profound instability,” says Diamond.

According to news reports, a regional consensus on Iraq would help achieve one of the ideas of the Iraqi Study Group, a bipartisan American panel that is examining possible policy alternatives on behalf of the U.S. Congress. The group is expected to announce its final report in the next few weeks.

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