Published on Wednesday, October 18, 2006 by the San Francisco Chronicle
US May Have Weeks, Not Months, To Avert Civil War, Adviser Warns
by James Sterngold
With the violence in Iraq flaring dangerously, a national consensus is growing, even among senior Republicans, that the United States must consider a major change in strategy in the coming months.
But in a sign of the growing sense of urgency, a member of a high-powered government advisory body that is developing options to prevent Iraq's chaotic collapse warns that the United States could have just weeks, not months, to avoid an all-out civil war.
"There's a sense among many people now that things in Iraq are slipping fast and there isn't a lot of time to reverse them," said Larry Diamond, one of a panel of experts advising the Iraq Study Group, which is preparing a range of policy alternatives for President Bush.
"The civil war is already well along. We have no way of knowing if it's too late until we try a radically different course," said Diamond, an expert on building democracies who is at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and is a former adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq.
The co-chairman of the Iraq Study Group, former Secretary of State James Baker, has already made headlines by saying that "stay the course" is no longer a viable strategy and that some kind of change will be required. The study group's final report is not due until after the November election, but Baker has insisted in several interviews over the past two weeks that the United States must place greater emphasis on diplomacy, including talks with avowed U.S. foes such as Syria and Iran, in an effort to stabilize Iraq. He has said the United States should place less emphasis on military force alone.
"I believe in talking to your enemies,'' Baker said in an interview on ABC. "'It's got to be hard-nosed, it's got to be determined. You don't give away anything, but in my view, it's not appeasement to talk to your enemies."
Baker's comments have been echoed by another prominent Republican, Virginia Sen. John Warner, the influential chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. After a visit to Iraq, Warner said he believes a change in course might be required if the situation does not improve in the next two months. Two other Republicans, Sens. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, also have urged changes in policy.
Because it could lead to a major policy shift, the release of the study group's report could prove a critical event in the course of the war in Iraq.
Diamond said in an interview that he was expressing strictly his personal opinions, not necessarily those of the study group. He said he was prohibited by a confidentiality agreement from disclosing any of the group's internal discussions beyond what Baker himself has publicly provided.
But having studied the situation in Iraq closely almost from the time Saddam Hussein was toppled in April 2003, and having been involved in trying to build a functioning democracy there, Diamond said the one thing the United States might no longer have is time. The Bush administration needs to initiate a "crash program" to avoid a catastrophe, he said. A key element would include bringing in new U.S. leadership to rebuild America's battered credibility in Iraq and the region.
Diamond proposes a multipronged diplomatic strategy intended to woo secular groups away from extremists and to define a more equitable power-sharing arrangement within the fragile Iraqi government to build popular support.
If the Bush administration does not move rapidly in this direction and the violence continues to rise, Diamond said he fears Iraq's central government could be overthrown or collapse and the Iraqi military might disintegrate, leaving heavily armed militias controlled by the Kurds, the Shiites and the Sunnis in a bloody struggle for power. The already heavy civilian death toll could soar still higher, dragging Iraq's neighbors into the chaos, he said.
The result, Diamond warned, could be the transformation of the Sunni-dominated Anbar province west of Baghdad into a zone effectively controlled by Islamic extremists, filled with terrorist training camps.
"What worries me more than any other single thing," Diamond said, "is if the country does effectively get broken up through a civil war -- and Anbar province, where most of the Sunnis live, becomes what Afghanistan was before 9/11."
At best, Diamond said, it appears the United States has a few months to implement a new strategy. He added, though, that an atrocity by an Iraqi group -- such as the bombing of the Askariya shrine, sacred to Shiites, in Samarra in February -- could trigger a cycle of retaliation that might spin out of control and give the United States even less time to act.
The first step the Bush administration should take is to renounce any plan to maintain permanent U.S. military bases in the country, said Diamond. Polls inside the country have shown that the vast majority of Iraqis fear that the secret U.S. aim is to continue to occupy Iraq and control its oil, a view that has fueled the insurgency.
The administration should simultaneously open discussions with the Sunnis, the Kurds and the Shiites aimed at instituting previously discussed revisions to the Iraqi Constitution to ensure that the minority Sunnis obtain a fair share of political power and an equitable portion of Iraq's oil wealth. Even insurgents should be part of the dialogue, he said.
"We need to have comprehensive, intensive, serious negotiations with the insurgents," Diamond said.
Diamond suggested that Baker, or another elder statesmen from outside the Bush White House, might be a good candidate to lead the effort.
"That's the only thing that's going to demonstrate that we're really changing course," said Diamond.
A fair arrangement, Diamond said, could peel away secular Sunnis from jihadi extremists, providing a firmer base of support for the Iraqi government. Those discussions, Diamond said, need to involve the United Nations, the European Union and other Arab governments in the region.
The United States should also announce plans for a flexible drawdown of troops over a period of from 18 months to 3 years, he said. Some troops should be redeployed to other countries in the region, such as Kuwait and Qatar, to ensure that the United States can respond swiftly to any crises, but a substantial number should return to their U.S. bases, he said.
And a large number of those troops should be sent to Afghanistan, Diamond added, to combat the Taliban resurgence there.
He emphasized that the Iraq plan should be flexible so that, if things stabilize, the troops can leave earlier or the drawdown can be slowed if violence flares.
"That's the only way of inducing the competing Iraqi political forces to take responsibility for the future of their country," he said.
As long as U.S. troops are seen as the sole guarantor of some level of stability, Diamond argued, Iraqi politicians will continue to stake out extreme positions and compete for all the power and wealth they can gain for their constituencies, without any sense that they need to build compromises to bring about stability on their own.
Diamond stressed that the Bush administration has to move forward on all these different tracks simultaneously, in part because they are interconnected and in part because there is no time to wait for the resolution of one issue before moving on to the next.
"This is the fourth quarter, there's two minutes left in the game, and we're down two touchdowns," said Diamond. "There may not be enough time left."
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