Iraq's neighbors fear premature U.S. departure

Though against presence, many say it is necessary for the region's stability

`An extremely nervous mood'

Concerns include change in regimes by America, revenge by Baghdad

November 02, 2003|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - As U.S. occupation forces in Iraq face increasingly sophisticated resistance, some of Iraq's neighbors are beginning to caution against an early American pullout that could leave the region at the mercy of uncontrollable tensions.

Even though most regional governments opposed the U.S. invasion and Arab public opinion remains hostile to the occupation, Iraq's neighbors are starting to worry about the consequences of an American failure to stabilize Iraq.

"We hope the U.S. has staying power. Withdrawal will leave even a bigger chaos," said Karim Kawar, Jordan's ambassador to Washington. "It's important to be able to have patience."

Kuwaiti diplomat Tareq Al-Mezrem added, "Everybody wants America not to leave Iraq prematurely."

President Bush insisted last week that American forces will "stay the course" in Iraq despite a rising death toll that has claimed more soldiers' lives since May 1, when major operations ended, than during the invasion. Congress is poised to supply the full $87 billion Bush sought to continue military operations and reconstruction in Iraq and Afghanistan well into next year.

But even as Bush made the pledge, the International Red Cross and the United Nations were preparing to reduce their staffs in Iraq after a series of bombings Monday that killed about 34 people, including two Red Cross employees.

Pressure from the public and Congress in the past has pushed the White House to cut short military missions in world hotspots, including Lebanon in 1984 and Somalia in 1993.

"It's also important to convey to the American public ... this is not easy. It's a major undertaking," Kawar said.

Fear of instability in Iraq has long haunted the country's neighbors and led many of them to tolerate for years the brutal and belligerent regime of Saddam Hussein as a necessary evil, one that prevented the oil-rich nation from splintering into competing Sunni, Shia and Kurdish ministates.

Now that fear is coupled with anger over the open-ended presence of 130,000 U.S. troops in an Arab country and with suspicions that the United States is bent on toppling other governments in a drive to reshape the region.

"I'm not sure most [Arab] leaders want the U.S. to fail. They're very worried about the implications of what happens in Iraq for their own regimes," a senior administration official said. "There is an extremely nervous mood on the part of Arab leaders right now."

This helps to explain why Persian Gulf countries - even those that publicly opposed the war - gave quiet but indispensable support to the invasion and why a number of Iraq's neighbors sent delegations to last month's donors' conference in Madrid and pledged varying amounts to help rebuild the country.

"The Arab world is scared overall," said one Arab diplomat, who did not want to be quoted by name or have his country identified. "Some people are scared that if the United States is able to extinguish the violence, it will be arrogant" and start pursuing "regime change" elsewhere.

"A second group is scared that the U.S. will pull out fast and leave behind chaos. Iraq, wounded, will be ready to retaliate. Jordan and Kuwait would be first to pay the price," the diplomat added. "Either scenario is not good."

Many Arab leaders opposed the U.S. invasion, fearing that a war would further inflame a volatile region angered by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Their worries about a refugee crisis, the spread of disease and a spillover of violence proved unfounded. Nevertheless, "they were vindicated in a way in that Iraq has become destabilized," said Hussein Hassona, the Arab League's ambassador here. "There is no real reconstruction, let alone a return to democracy."

Arab officials are quick to point out what they view as errors by American administrators in Iraq, particularly the U.S. decisions to disband the Iraqi army, leaving a security vacuum that U.S. troops are still unable to fill, and the failure to rebuild a strong central government.

"We believe more time should have been invested in planning `the day after,'" Kawar said. Noting U.S. planners' beliefs that American troops would be welcomed and that Iraq's large Shiite population would uniformly cooperate with the occupiers, Kawar said, "All of these assumptions proved to be wrong."

In Turkey, Iraq's non-Arab northern neighbor, anxiety is growing, said Soner Cagaptay, a specialist on Turkey at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "If, God forbid, it falls apart and the U.S. loses control, it's only going to get worse for Turkey."

After refusing to allow U.S. forces to invade Iraq via Turkey, Ankara won parliamentary approval last month to send troops to help stabilize the country, a force that officials said could number 10,000. However, the deployment is now unlikely to occur.

Among the Turkish elite, there is always "a certain amount of unease over very fast changes in the region," Cagaptay said.

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