Fuse Lit for Total War in Mideast: U.S. Envoy
Published on Wednesday, March 8, 2006 by the Toronto Star / Canada
Fuse Lit for Total War in Mideast: U.S. Envoy
Warns against pulling troops out of Iraq too soon
Country `really vulnerable' to an all-out civil war
by Borzou Daragahi
 
BAGHDAD - The toppling of Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003 opened a "Pandora's box" of ethnic and sectarian tensions that could engulf the region in all-out war and disrupt the global economy if U.S. forces were to leave the country too soon, says the top American diplomat in Iraq.

In remarks that were among the frankest and bleakest public assessments of the situation by a high-level American official, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said the "potential is there" for sectarian violence to become all-out civil war, but that Iraq for now had pulled back from that prospect after the wave of sectarian reprisals for the Feb. 22 bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra.

"If another incident (occurs), Iraq is really vulnerable to it at this time," Khalilzad said in an interview.

Abandoning Iraq in the way the U.S. disengaged from civil wars in Lebanon, Afghanistan and Somalia could have dramatic global repercussions, he said.

"We have opened the Pandora's Box and the question is, what is the way forward? The way forward, in my view, is an effort to build bridges across these communities."

Khalilzad's comments came as Britain's most senior officer in Iraq said his country plans to pull out nearly all its soldiers from Iraq by the summer of 2008, with the first withdrawals within weeks.

Lieut.-Gen. Nick Houghton, outlined a phased two-year withdrawal plan in an interview published yesterday in the Daily Telegraph newspaper. Britain, America's biggest partner in the Iraq campaign, has 8,000 troops in Iraq, based in and around the southern port of Basra.

U.S. military officials must decide this month whether to cancel scheduled deployments of several army combat brigades — a decision that would lead to a reduction in the total number of U.S. troops by mid-year from about 130,000 to about 100,000.

On Sunday, U.S. Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a televised interview that things in Iraq are "going very, very well, from everything you look at."

For nearly a year, Gen. George Casey, one of the top commanders in Iraq, has said that a "substantial reduction" of U.S. troops could occur in 2006, and pointed to spring as the time when the critical decisions would be made. On Friday, however, Casey said the recent violence is "certainly something that we will consider in our decisions."

Without touching on the issue of a drawdown of forces, Khalilzad described a highly flammable atmosphere in Iraq that dates at least to the highly polarizing Dec. 15 elections that handed Shiites a dominant share of authority.

"Right now, there's a vacuum of authority and there's a lot of distrust," said the diplomat, who is among the architects of the U.S. plan to reshape the political balance of the Middle East following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

The Samarra mosque bombing and the subsequent outbreak of violent reprisals by Shiites against Sunnis demonstrated that insurgents fully understand Iraq's fragility and will seek to exploit it, he said.

The ambassador's argument paralleled that of military analyst Stephen Biddle, writing in Foreign Affairs magazine, who called the Iraq conflict "a communal civil war."

"Although it is being fought at low intensity for now, it could easily escalate if Americans and Iraqis make the wrong choices," Biddle writes.

"Turning over the responsibility for fighting the insurgents to local forces, in particular, is likely to make matters worse," he cautions.

Warning that "in communal conflicts the risk of mass slaughter is especially high" and "genocide is a real possibility," Biddle says, "Iraq's Sunnis perceive the `national' army and police force as a Shiite-Kurdish militia on steroids. The bigger, stronger, better trained and better equipped the Iraqi forces become, the worse the communal tensions that underlie the whole conflict will get."

Khalilzad, who is actively involved in government talks, repeated his assertion that the best way to prevent civil war or large-scale sectarian violence is to form a government of national unity drawing from all of Iraq's disparate groups as a way "to build trust and narrow the fault line that exists" between Shiite and Sunni.

That means, according to Biddle, a strong U.S. presence for as long as it takes to work out a stable power-sharing government. "An ongoing low-intensity war does not look so bad," he writes. "As long as U.S. forces patrol Iraq, the country will not break up and the conflict will not descend into all-out chaos."

Khalilzad said the U.S. has little choice but to maintain a strong presence in Iraq, or risk a regional conflict with Arabs siding with Sunnis and Iranians backing Shiite co-religionists in what could be a more-encompassing version of the 1980s Iran-Iraq war, which left as many as 1 million people dead. He described a worst-case scenario in which religious extremists could take over sections of Iraq and begin to expand outward.

"That would make Taliban Afghanistan look like child's play," said Khalilzad, an American of Afghan descent who served as U.S. envoy to Kabul, the Afghan capital, before taking on the Baghdad posting.

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