WASHINGTON — The election scheduled this month in Iraq could further inflame the country's conflict and increase the risk of civil war, Brent Scowcroft, national security advisor to President Bush's father, said at a forum Thursday.
Rather than leading to stability, Scowcroft said, he feared that the election would further alienate Iraq's Sunni Muslim population and that it had "a great potential for deepening the conflict."
"Indeed, we may be seeing an incipient civil war [in Iraq] at the present time."
In one sense, the comments from Scowcroft, a retired Air Force lieutenant general, were not surprising: He has long been a critic of the Iraq war. But his stark warning about potential civil war marked one of the most ominous assessments about the implications of the upcoming election from a high-ranking former official.
Scowcroft made his comments at a luncheon sponsored by the New America Foundation, a centrist, nonpartisan Washington think tank. At the forum, Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter's national security advisor, also offered a grim prognosis for Iraq.
Brzezinski said the United States should meet its goals of producing a reasonably stable Iraqi government "if we are willing to put in 500,000 troops, spend $200 billion a year, probably have the draft and have some kind of wartime taxation."
The White House did not respond to a request for comment about the remarks.
Scowcroft, an international business consultant in Washington, also served as national security advisor to President Ford. Scowcroft recruited Condoleezza Rice, Bush's choice as the next secretary of State, to her first White House job, hiring her as a Soviet expert at the National Security Council under President George H.W. Bush.
The current Bush administration hopes that the planned parliamentary elections in Iraq will help end the insurgency by creating a government with broad popular support. But Scowcroft said he believed there was "a distinct possibility" that the balloting could lead to the breakup of the country by triggering violence between Shiite Muslim and Sunni Muslim forces, which in turn would prompt the Kurds to secede.
At the luncheon, attended by journalists and foreign policy experts, Scowcroft said the risk was that the election would deepen feelings of estrangement among Sunnis, who constitute an estimated 20% of the population but dominated Iraq under ousted dictator Saddam Hussein's rule.
Scowcroft said he believed that the insurgency was "gradually morphing" from a resistance by elements of the former regime into a broader "Sunni revolt" driven by fear that the Shiite majority will elect a government controlled by its members.
The election, scheduled for Jan. 30, will elect a transitional national assembly to write a new constitution and select a new government. The leading Sunni political party, the Iraqi Islamic Party, has withdrawn from the election, saying it should be delayed until security improves in Sunni regions of the country. Interim President Ghazi Ajil Yawer, a Sunni, suggested this week that the election might need to be delayed.
But the Bush administration and interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi have contended that the election should be held on schedule.
Scowcroft said that if the balloting produced an election dominated by Shiites, "that could in fact turn the Sunnis to revolution and civil war against a Shia government."
Some other experts, such as Larry Diamond, a democracy expert at the conservative Hoover Institution who advised U.S. authorities in Iraq, have raised similar concerns.
Scowcroft did not say at the meeting whether he believed that the election should be delayed, and he could not be reached afterward. At the meeting, Scowcroft said that Bush should try again to persuade European allies to contribute significant numbers of troops to Iraq and ask the United Nations to take a more prominent role in developing the new Iraqi government.
Reducing American visibility would improve the prospects for success in Iraq, he argued, because "we are now seen as the occupier."
Brzezinski agreed that Bush should make a renewed push for international troops that could significantly swell the overall security force in Iraq. If no other countries are willing to participate at meaningful levels, he said, the U.S. should begin withdrawing its troops from the country this year.
If large numbers of U.S. forces remain in Iraq without more international support, Brzezinski said, "we will be viewed eventually as the other side of the coin of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinians."
Copyright 2005 Los Angeles Times